To Hell and Back

There's a good reason why the new thriller Hideaway is proudly designated as "A Film by Brett Leonard," a name few casual moviegoers would recognize, let alone regard with high esteem.

Leonard, who directed the cyberpunk-revamped movie version of Stephen King's short story The Lawnmower Man, is a high-tech showman with a fresh, off-kilter, vaguely repulsive notion of what makes for an interesting horror film. Like a lot of directors who decide early on to specialize in a particular genre, he's more interested in the shocks and scares than the stuff that comes in between; he's terrible with actors, and he pieces subplots and subtext together so sloppily that he sometimes seems not to have read his own screenplays very closely. But his movies don't look or feel quite like any others. He stirs in Freudian pulp, slasher-film gore, religious symbolism, suburban malaise and blaring rock music, and zaps your retina with computer-animated freakout spectacles whenever possible.

When he's operating at full-throttle -- especially during his animated sequences -- he takes you places you've never been before and presents some very old horror gimmicks in new and exciting ways. Leonard seems determined to establish himself as a John Carpenter for the Lollapalooza era, and if he could get his head out of his hard drive for a while, he just might be able to pull it off.

The first 20 minutes of Hideaway are a case in point. While the credits flash on-screen, we see a dead-eyed teenager pay his respects to the family members he's just killed, then head upstairs to his very own private Satanic shrine for a combination prayer-and-ritual-suicide session. Most horror movie directors would stop as soon as the kid's torso jabbed down on his voodoo-looking dagger, but not Brett Leonard. He gives us a jet-zoom close-up of the dead boy's pupil, then takes us inside the eye and whooshes us through some kind of ectoplasmic tunnel filled with flashing lights and geometric patterns.

We're on a trip straight into the soul, and once we get there, the afterlife is just a connecting flight away. Leonard fills his wide-screen canvas with images of hell envisioned as a giant, boiling soccer ball covered with the screaming souls of evil dead folks, and as the kid's life essence (which looks like a spectral sperm with a human face) hovers near the edge of what's to come, deciding whether or not to go near the hell ball, shimmering tendrils lash out and suck him toward his destiny. The sequence looks like a segment of Fantasia animated by disgruntled dwarves on very bad mushrooms.

Exciting, eh? There's more. Cut to Hatch (Jeff Goldblum), befuddled patriarch of an upper-middle class white-bread family, sharing a warm moment with his wife, Lindsey (Christine Lahti), and teenage daughter, Regina (Alicia Silverstone), at the tail end of a woodland vacation. As soon as they hop in their car and start the long drive home, Leonard whacks us with a jack-knifing truck, an out-of-control family sedan, a fall from a cliff, and a nail-biting escape from a roaring waterfall. Amazing. Exhausting. Mind-blowing.

But that's not the end. Once Hatch, who's clinically dead, undergoes an experimental resuscitation technique, Leonard books us on a return flight through the Tunnel of Wow -- only this time, because Hatch is a nice man instead of a murdering punk, he sees not a hell ball, but what appears to be a buzzing, spherical cloud of neon packing peanuts overseen by the ghost of a dead loved one. It's worth pointing out that I personally never envisioned heaven or hell as resembling the final levels of an arcade game, and neither -- I'm willing to bet -- have most people. It's also worth pointing out that however silly and simplistically conceived these afterlife sequences are, they're spectacular to behold. Watching them is like being on some kind of insane amusement park thriller ride that crashes through the ground and keeps chugging forward until it hits the center of the earth.

Unfortunately, there isn't much else in Hideaway that's worth discussing. After a bang-up opening, it fades fast. Like many of the paperback thrillers of Dean Koontz (who penned the novel on which this particular film is based), it's not the individual elements of the plot that are of interest but the reckless way assorted bits from other horror novels, movies and even adult comic books are glommed together. Hideaway details Hatch's running battle with the vengeful spirit of the self-impaled teenage Satanist, who may or may not be a figment of his troubled imagination; the story comprises odds and ends culled from Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robocop, Nightmare on Elm Street, Angel Heart and The Hunger. (The latter seems especially dear to Brett Leonard's heart. He pours on evil, Bauhaus-inflected metal music whenever the bad guy goes looking for jailbait victims at rave parties, and after the scenes are finished, he keeps the music going anyway, as if his soundtrack musicians were getting paid by the chorus.)

Too much time is wasted on scenes we've watched too many times before, especially the absurdly elaborate stalk-and-kill set pieces, which Leonard prolongs past the point of suspense into gory repetitiousness. The film moves along briskly, so that you barely have time to wonder exactly who this family is and why we should care what happens to them. As valiantly as Goldblum and Lahti try to flesh out their characters, they never seem like more than generic parent figures, and Silverstone is given so little to do (besides get placed in harm's way) that her part could just as easily have been played by a dressmaker's mannequin wearing a T-shirt marked "Damsel in Distress." (Another puzzler is that Goldblum and Lahti, two of the most uniquely talented comic actors working in movies, are given almost no moments of levity. If I recall correctly, even Angel Heart had a few laughs.)

The film springs to life a few times after the opening sequence, usually when Goldblum is rushing across town to pursue his spectral doppelgänger, invariably stumbling across a new dead body and leaving his fingerprints all over creation (which isn't a big deal, given that the film's token nosy detective is such a clueless idiot that he must have been transferred over from the Castle Rock PD). And the finale, which takes place in an abandoned amusement park where Satan Boy has constructed a gigantic scrap-metal devil's head to house his stereo equipment and various killing tools, has a certain crude punchiness, although it devolves into overproduced supernatural hooey that's never adequately explained by the script.

But by that point, the picture has become so tedious, sadistic and loud that it's difficult to mourn what might have been. The only way to pass the time without yawning is by counting the assorted implausibilities of human behavior on display -- a sure sign that a horror film has overstayed its welcome. My favorite occurs during the picture's longest stalking sequence, in which a kidnapped Bauhaus chippy runs desperately around the villain's lair in a vain attempt to escape him, finally deciding the most logical way to save herself is to duck inside the gaping maw of the giant devil's head playhouse.

Yup, that's what I'd do, all right.

Directed by Brett Leonard. With Jeff Goldblum, Christine Lahti and Alicia Silverstone.

Rated R.
112 minutes.


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