They have such sights to show you…
What’s your upper tolerance for documentary duration? Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy came in at four hours. Crystal Lake Memories, the Friday the 13th documentary was nearly seven. Now there’s Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, K. John McDonagh’s documentary about Clive Barker’s seminal 1987 horror film and its sequel, which clocks in at four and a half hours – with another five-plus hours of additional material spread across three discs. It hasn’t so much been edited as assembled.
Despite the existence of extras-packed DVD and Blu-ray editions, including featurettes and audio commentaries, Hellraiser is certainly a worthy subject for a documentary. Writing about the release in 1987, Alan Jones noted that, until Hellraiser, British horror had all but disappeared since the demise of Hammer Films, with Xtro and The Company of Wolves among the few success stories coming from the UK in the mid-1980s. By this time, Clive Barker had already mastered the dark art of horror fiction – based on his short story collection The Books of Blood, Stephen King famously proclaimed Barker “the future of the horror genre” – and had several plays (“Frankenstein in Love”, “The Secret Life of Cartoons”), a novel (The Damnation Game) and two film adaptations (Underworld and Rawhead Rex, neither of which bore much resemblance to Barker’s scripts) behind him. The time seemed right for Barker to write and direct his own film, and the short story “The Hellbound Heart” seemed like a good source. Hellraiser was born, spawning two enduring horror icons – the dark divinity known as ‘Pinhead’, and the ‘Lament Configuration’ puzzle box that summons him and his terrifying brethren, the Cenobites – and no fewer than eight sequels, one of which was quite good. With the 30th anniversary of the film on the horizon – and a Blu-ray restoration coming from Arrow later this year – an all new, retrospective ‘making of’ documentary seemed like just what the doctor (Channard?) ordered. But did it have to be ten hours long?
Crowd funded, nobly intentioned and in most respects well made, Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II has a lot to recommend it. Firstly, McDonagh and his crew haven’t cut corners when it comes to interview: over forty of the original cast and crew are interviewed, including Figg, Robinson, Doug Bradley (arguably the greatest match of monster and actor since Bela Lugosi played Dracula), effects supremos Bob Keen and Geoff Portass, and many more – perhaps too many. Although Barker himself does not sit for an interview, in the same way that God does not appear to the faithful at religious gatherings, but his absence is mitigated by the sheer number of past and present collaborators gathering in his name. Early collaborators like Bradley and Peter Atkins dig deep into Barker’s background in school plays and short fiction, giving a solid foundation to the making of Hellraiser itself. It’s intended to be exhaustive – but it’s exhausting.
Most documentaries are compiled from hours and hours of interviews, but the makers of the best ones know that less is more: if one person says something with which the other interview subjects agree, you don’t need to have the same point reiterated multiple times by others. A running time of four and a half hours would be forgivable if McDonagh had killed a few more of his darlings – or engaged a more judicious editor. Equally wearying is the omnipresent music score (an original composition by Lito Velasco), which, instead of being used sparingly, underscores almost the entire 300-minute running time. (Another recent horror-themed documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, suffered from a similar tendency.)
The making of Hellraiser takes up the first disc in Cult Screenings UK’s three-disc DVD release; Disc 2 covers the making of Hellbound: Hellraiser II in similarly exhaustive fashion (3 hours 15 minutes), explaining at length how the filmmakers overcame challenges such as last minute budget cuts, director Tony Randel’s relative inexperience, and pre-release censorship issues to deliver an over-ambitious yet perfectly serviceable sequel to Barker’s film, commercially and artistically, if not critically (Kudos to the makers of Leviathan to drop in a snippet of Barry Norman’s evisceration of the film, and to Pete Atkins for reminding us that Daily Mail critic Christopher Tookey called for the imprisonment of those responsible for unleashing the horrors of Hellbound: Hellraiser II on the world.)
A third disc offers a further three and a half hours of bonus material, including separate featurettes on Barker, Dr. Channard, the Cenobites, the Hellraiser sequels, Coil’s unreleased music for the original, and the making of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Even die hard fans of the Hellraiser might balk at ten hours of retrospective ‘making of’ interviews (albeit interspersed with sparse archive material, original and new illustrations, script extracts, etc.), but McDonagh has clearly decided, however unwisely, to use as much of his footage as possible, whether it adds much to the proceedings or not. Perhaps at some future stage, McDonagh will edit a powerful 100-minute ‘making of’, hopefully with absentee creator Clive Barker, including all of the salient points, but less of the repetition, filler and repetition.
Then again, it is called Leviathan. I suppose it’s supposed to be a behemoth.
Leviathan is available as a region neutral 3-DVD set here.