Here’s a double-bill I don’t recommend you try: ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Hellraiser’.
I was going through stacks of old DVDs, thinking about what to chuck out as space is a premium, and somehow ended up watching these back-to-back. I used to be mates with Clive Barker and found him a perfectly charming man, and I remember being impressed by the sheer oddness of his debut film. (Eventually Doug ‘Pinhead’ Bradley ended up in a short film of mine, but that’s another story.) So, I rewatched the first of the six or seven Hellraisers, and realised why it stood out. It’s terrible.
But – in an interesting way. It’s clearly shot in a shabby North London house, but most of the accents are dubbed-American, so it becomes set in a disconcerting limbo from the outset (in the sequel there are fake-looking New York cops running around, which is even weirder). The film has no hero, no-one to root for at all. Instead it sports a lunatic unmotivated villainess and a monster with no skin. In fact, nothing connects from one sequence to the next, so that it looks as if scenes have been randomly and pointlessly shuffled together.There’s no cause-and-effect, no logical plotting at all, and the effects are now hilariously sub-par. And apart from the superb Claire Higgins, the human casting feels as if names were pulled out of a hat.
Yet it’s so perverse and nonsensical, with Pinhead wandering around dropping incomprehensible epithets about pain and pleasure, that it’s rather a hoot. The sequel has model exteriors so phoney that it looks as if Godzilla is about to step on them, and consists of Kirsty and Tiffany (so eighties) running around corridors made of blue cardboard. Which is marginally preferable to the third film, in which Pinhead spends half the running time with his head sticking out of a box.
How were we hoodwinked? How did we ever think these were even vaguely releasable? In the lists and polls of top films, it’s interesting to see that ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Potemkin’ share something in common. Neither of them feature. ‘Potemkin’ sports the world’s first major action sequence, with the still-astonishing massacre on the Odessa Steps. Like ‘Man With A Movie Camera’ it created the language of film that has remained in use to the present day. But apparently that’s not enough to rate it over, say, ‘Anchorman’.
Now, I’m no film snob; I can watch ‘Celine & Julie Go Boating’ or ‘Carry On Matron’ and get something out of either. Film is driven by populism, despite the fact that Sight & Sound really wishes it wasn’t. But what I really notice now is how much of my collection has been pronounced upon by the passage of time and found wanting. The films that endure are resolutely humanist and don’t rely on melodramatic effects. Film students are always told to show, not tell, but there’s an argument for not showing. When censorship codes were heavier, writers and directors were forced to be more creative, which is why the implied violence and sexual banter of 1930s films has kept them alive. Controlled writing is paramount, which is why we remember the ‘Gremlins’ speech about Santa, think of ‘The Breakfast Club’ as John Hughes’ best film, and regard ‘The Innocents’ as the most disturbing ghost story ever made.
Of course we relish spectacle, from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Inception’, but the films that get to stay on my shelves will probably be the ones filled with more revealing moments. Some films don’t seem to date at all; the quicksilver amorality of ‘The Palm Beach Story’ feels utterly fresh, as do the Tracey-Hepburn vehicles, and Katherine Hepburn still devastates with her sheer modernity. When she barks; ‘Your golfball? Your car? Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?’ she captures a frustrating illogic that has annoyed men through the centuries.
However, both ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Potemkin’ went out in the end. The former for merely being an odd diversion, the latter because although I’m glad I watched it, I won’t need to see it again, unlike other some silent milestones that interest for peripheral reasons. Certain films work as time bubbles, rather like snapshots. Richard Gere’s ‘Arbitrage’ is to the noughties what ‘American Gigolo’ was to the early eighties, and it’s good that Hollywood made both films, which have moral centres. Finally, there’s another decider as to what stays and what goes; I’m allergic to preachy Hollywood films, but films that replace a moral stance with contradictory bouts of sensation simply wither and fade after viewing.
Most timeless movies and recommendations here please. Here’s one to start the ball rolling; Bill Forsyth’s marvellously understated ’Housekeeping’, starring Christine Lahti (above).