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Friday, September 11, 2020

Writer Michael Lent Details the Original Vision for ‘Hellraiser V: The Hellseeker’ [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

For this installment, we’ll be taking a look at the intended yet ultimately unmade fifth installment of the Hellraiser franchise, Hellraiser: The Hellseeker. Joining us for this chat is screenwriter Michael Lent, who describes why this Hellseeker is not the one we know, how the project initially began and why it fell apart, and what its story would have entailed. Along the way, Mr. Lent details his experiences as a young writer, dealing with the Weinsteins, and his struggles inside of the Hollywood studio machine.

For those unfamiliar with the eventually produced Hellseeker (which would become the sixth installment in the Hellraiser franchise), a quick recap: after a car accident claims the life of his wife, Trevor Gooden (Oz’s Dean Winters) finds himself in a waking nightmare. With the head injury he sustained in the crash blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, Trevor is doggedly pursued by detectives who believe he’s a murderer, and haunted by a number of nightmarish creatures that fans of the Hellraiser franchise will know to be Cenobites. With his only friend appearing to be the beautiful ER doctor who saved his life, Trevor travels down a hellish rabbit hole and eventually pieces together his memory before coming to a startling revelation, and his ultimate fate…

In describing the journey to writing what was meant to be the fifth installment of the Hellraiser franchise, Mr. Lent notes that it was a spec screenplay of his garnering a great deal of attention that led to the offer to pen a tale for Pinhead and Co. “Mea Culpa was about a priest who takes in a young woman who has these priceless tattoos that there are people willing to skin her alive for. We used to pitch it as ‘Die Hard in a church’. He offers her sanctuary, and these forces of evil are trying to break into this church, and he has his own demons and so on. The script attracted quite a lot of attention. I found myself sitting across from Jim Gandolfini, from The Sopranos. Gabriel Byrne was circling it. I think I had a meeting with one of Scorsese’s DPs. There was a lot of heat on the script, and my manager took it to Miramax. They liked it very much, and they offered an option on it. My management said ‘I wouldn’t take it. You should force them to buy the script. That’s our recommendation.’ And I asked why. This would have been my first studio deal, and they said because every executive has a slate of projects, and if this gets optioned then that means that there’s no real risk if the executive doesn’t develop the project. It’ll go down on the depth chart to number twelve or thirteen or fourteen on their slate, and it’ll never get made. So we went back to them, and Harvey and Bob Weinstein read the script. They sent it over to Robert Rodriguez [director of Miramax/Dimension’s From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty], and asked if he wanted to direct. He said it was really interesting, but he didn’t want to make it his next project.”

While the Weinsteins passed on Mea Culpa, they did offer Mr. Lent the opportunity to pitch on the fifth and sixth installments of the Hellraiser franchise. The team of Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil) were ultimately tasked with tackling one of the two movies, with their completed feature becoming Hellraiser: Inferno, the fifth film in the franchise. “They were another team that was doing VI. We were doing V. I went in to pitch, and went back to Clive Barker’s book. He’s one of the greats in horror. Any time you can go to the source material, which was a novelette in this case, you’re going to be so much stronger. I went back to relationships.”

Dean Winters as Trevor Gooden in ‘Hellraiser: Hellseeker’ (2002)

The story that Mr. Lent’s version of Hellseeker (here called The Hellseeker) tells is markedly different in many ways from the film that was released to DVD in 2002, and yet there are numerous elements that reveal this iteration to have put the building blocks in place for this particular Hellraiser. He describes the story in detail: “A mountaintop fire incinerates a former remote radio station and tower turned hacker/gamer den/lab filled with dozens of people who are interacting with something covered in sensors suspended and floating under a glass dome. The temps are so intense that steel girders melt. Improbably there is at least one survivor who is a John Doe, later named Miller Rix. He was fleeing the site with a game designer named Blink at the time of the blast. Blink is MIA, but Miller is evacced to the nearest county hospital.

“Scorching burns over 70% of his body but he’s alive, barely. ER doc Dr. Erica Price takes him under her charge. For the first ten days, it’s very touch and go, then he emerges. You get these flashbacks of what happened on that mountain. He doesn’t really know who he is, he is literally a blank slate. Through the course of his recovery, which is miraculous, she falls in love with him … and discovers one other thing: embedded into Miller there’s a fragment of a claw, a Cenobite claw. Miller is placed in a body cast that, when removed, he is healed but very weak and remembers very little, including who he is. In the cast are Turin-like images of souls in torment, the players who were consumed by the fire and taken to hell. Meanwhile, the fragment serves both as a beacon and a conduit for horrific images that restore Miller’s memories.

“Meanwhile, investigators at the site find the rest of the claw covered with markings and sensors. When one of the investigators cuts himself on the claw, the Cenobites are summoned and he is consumed. The Cenobites are 7 feet tall, and can be summoned by both blood and fire. Many of these are new prototypes, different from what we have seen before but led by Pinhead. One wields a cross bow.

“[Erica] brings Miller to her home to finish his recovery, and he’s slipping out to find out who he is, [but he] is legitimately in love with this woman who saved his life. He gets a second chance. He doesn’t know what the chance is, and he doesn’t know where he came from. We don’t know how important that is. It winds up being crucial. It really becomes this kind of … is he the person that he wants to be for her, or are his literal demons going to be resurrected?

“This guy … he’s a career criminal. Very charismatic. He’s constantly being followed – by the police, by Pinhead and the Cenobites who are dropping clues. The Cenobites cannot touch him until he knows who he is. At one point, in order to find out who he was, he has to go back into these dens of depravity. He doesn’t know anybody, but they all know him. So he’s discovering his own backstory. He’s almost amassing power. You’re waiting for the light switch to go on, because that’s when the Cenobites can reclaim him. That was the core of it. That was kind of an interesting question – ‘Can you outrun your past? Can you have a different nature, or do you remain true to yourself even if it’s this depravity?’

“Blink returns and tells Miller that the game is something that they found in cyberspace and were eventually able to hack into. It is a portal that summons the Cenobites to come ‘play’. Much like Plato’s Myth of the Cave, there are different levels of reality to the game and some low level players discover that they are actually sacrifices to entice the Cenobites to emerge from Hell. It also takes tremendous power to draw out the Cenobites, and the sacrificed players help them to stay for the enjoyment of the higher-level players.

“Miller … wants to protect [Erica] from his past. At the same time, he is slowly being drawn back into finding the game again, but the portal is locked. He discovers that Blink wants to the monetize the game by taking it global, essentially unleashing Hell on Earth for the amusement of a select few. Blink kidnaps Erica and will kill her unless Miller successfully unlocks the portal. When he does, Blink double crosses by making Erica a sacrifice for the Cenobites. Miller is mortally wounded trying to save her. The Cenobites arrive. Blink offers them a partnership, but soon learns that Cenobites don’t make deals. It is Blink that they claim. They explain that they are not killers, but purifiers. Miller dies in Erica’s arms.

“Three weeks later, in a college dorm, two students hack the portal and fire up the game.”

Ultimately, the hunt for Miller’s identity and the battle for his soul were fully resolved by the final act, as was the love story at the heart of the tale. “[Erica] kinda likes this dangerous version of him, but she does remain true to herself and has to let go of him. She wants him, but if she continues on with him, he’ll tear her down along with him. He has a rebirth, but it’s resolved that the leopard can’t change his spots. But he does one decent thing for her…”

Rachel Hayward as Dr. Allison Dormer in ‘Hellraiser: Hellseeker’ (2002)

So! An amnesiac man, seeking out clues for his identity, all while being followed by shadowy forces who hope to exploit his failing memory? “If all of this sounds slightly familiar, it’s a zeitgeist. I was writing the script through ’99, and in 2001 there was a movie called Memento. There was a zeitgeist of this sort of theme, and that became a problem as it took longer and longer to get the film made…

“The scriptwriting process was very intense. I did five drafts in three months, something like that. This was Miramax, so everybody had a really strong voice in the development. It was a really difficult process, especially as a young writer. Everything was micromanaged. I had an executive who was trying to run interference for me. I would write pages, I would get notes from the Los Angeles office, and the New York offices. These faceless voices on the speaker. All these people that are armed with suggestions. They may work, they may sound good, but it’s really difficult to write by committee. Anyway, we persevered.”

The project got as far along as actually securing a director at the helm – a well-known First AD ready to make the leap to the director’s chair. “Doug Aarniokoski, who’d done Resident Evil and The Faculty, came on board [as director]. Having all the executives in line, having a director who had come from the Miramax stable and was on the rise … when he got involved I was essentially writing, with him and for him, what would be a shooting script. We were two weeks away from a start date, because everything was rushing to get into production. Then, two things happened. Doug comported himself so well, that he went off to do another project. But he was saying, ‘I love this project, we’re going to do it. As soon as I get back in six weeks, we’re shooting. We’re going for it.’ The second thing that happened was that, for some reason, a bunch of the executives in New York were fired. If you know anything about Miramax, you know it was just really a hurly burly time. Then, all of a sudden, that left us without a major contingent for our film. ‘What does this mean, what does this mean?!’ ‘Oh, we’re going to regroup!’ Well, Doug wound up moving onto the next Highlander [2000’s Endgame]. That budget was something like $25 million dollars. Ours was at $4.5 million or so. Suddenly, we didn’t have a director. When you work with a studio, you’re constantly trying to amass a critical mass to push it over the edge into production.”

Mr. Lent notes that The Hellseeker’s status saw it getting bumped out of its initial spot as the intended fifth installment. “So we were number five. When we lost our director and our executives, Scott’s project [Hellraiser: Inferno] became the next film, and then [ours was to come] after that.” So with the studio in disarray, the director gone, and the project’s future in question, where did that leave Mr. Lent? “I finally completed my contractual obligations. At one point I even said to [Miramax/Dimension production executive] David Jordan, ‘Look, if you need new drafts, we can work something out. If it needs to be tweaked for a new director, etc.’, and it kinda went silent, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. Then I heard somebody say ‘Hey, they’re shooting your movie in Canada!’ And sure enough, it was Hellseeker. That was the title we had given it.”

While the Hellseeker that was eventually produced is not the version Mr. Lent has just detailed, there are surely many similarities between the two. “It was still Hellseeker. The logline was ‘guy has an accident, he’s rushed to a hospital where they revive him, he’s trying to figure out who he is, the detectives are on his trail…’ Some things seemed really different, but the core – and people can judge for themselves – seemed similar enough. But when the film came out, my name was not on it. And everything that happens after the first eight or ten minutes was not anything that I would have ever envisioned. And that was essentially that. It was very educational for me. That’s essentially my first foray into Hollywood production. These projects … they’re of their time. And sometimes you miss that little window, and then they’re just a good script, or just a good sample.”

Even still, one imagines that Mr. Lent might have received some credit for his initial take on the material. And yet… “We did check in. The writers that came after, it was in their contract that, if they did this, they would get sole credit. And the WGA has guidelines. I think it has to be something like 26 percent, and it clearly was not. Like I said, the story kind of veers off after the setup, and even the setup is not the same. You learn to move on, and that’s one of the hard lessons for anyone who writes in Hollywood. You have to let things go. You can’t go back in time. You have such a limited amount of time to create, you just have to get to it. I screw up all the time in terms of my craft. I feel like I’m always going to be a better writer on the next project. But you won’t make the same mistakes that you made on this particular project, you make a whole bunch of new ones. Because you’re starting with a blank slate, every single time. That’s the promise and the curse of writing.”

While the fifth film in the Hellraiser franchise saw the series going the direct-to-video route, Mr. Lent notes that Miramax/Dimension was initially looking at following up the prior installment, Hellraiser: Bloodline, with more theatrical sequels. “I think it was meant to be theatrical. That’s what they told me. I would hear things, but … when you’re a writer, it’s kind of like Gilligan’s Island. You’re Gilligan, and you know where Mr. Howell keeps his money, and the Professor confides in you his latest experiment or invention, and you get to see Ginger and Mary Anne dressing. Everyone calls you ‘Little Buddy’, but nobody on the island actually wants to be you, or be with you. That is really the lot of the screenwriter in Hollywood. You’re there, and you’re privy to all kinds of things, but at the end of the day – you’re Gilligan.”

It’s worth noting that Hellraiser: Bloodline is not only the final film in the series to have gotten a theatrical release (to date), it’s also the final time creator Clive Barker had any direct involvement with the films. But had he intended to take part in this fifth installment before the project collapsed? “They would send things to Clive Barker, and he was wonderful. Perhaps he says this to everybody, but it came back that, of all the pitches, he really liked this one the most. So that was very nice to hear. I think it was very clear that I had gone back to his novelette The Hellbound Heart. From what I heard, he was gratified, and that it was a smart choice. He was 100% advisory, but I don’t think he was involved.”

Though it’s been two decades since this project collapsed, one wonders if this particular tale might yet see the light of day, given that the series is due to be revived in the near future on both the big and small screens. If so, would Mr. Lent be interested in returning to that world? “Yes, because the source material is just so amazing and strong. And also, I firmly believe that it’s always about what it means to you. There’s always an underlying central theme I think all of us have. For myself, it’s sort of ‘The Lazarus Man’. The man who’s been wondering around, and realizes that he’s been dead to his life, and [has this] wakeup call. What’s he going to do with it? I think that’s a pertinent theme, even now.

“I took the things from the source material that resonated with me personally. If you’re on something really intensely for months and months and months, it’d better speak to you. I’ve just never been able to invest in projects that I didn’t believe in, and couldn’t get excited about. They have to have some sort of underlying value. I like a big studio movie as much as anybody, but I’m constantly looking for the emotional resonance.”

In wrapping up our talk, Mr. Lent (whose graphic novels The Machine Stops and The Man Who Wasn’t There are currently available) passes along a bit of advice to writers everywhere. “I interviewed Ed Solomon, the writer on Men in Black. Something he told me when I wrote for [screenwriting magazine] Creative Screenwriting, to paraphrase – ‘The business side of writing is always a ballbuster. If you can do anything else, you should. But if at the end of the day you have the soul of a writer, then the one thing that improves is your craft.’ That’s been a touchtone for me. I just like to write, I love to tell stories. I would advise anybody out there to be very DIY. Just keep doing it. Get things done, because you never know what will happen when it gets out into the universe.”

Very special thanks to Michael Lent for his time and insights.


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