Hellraiser: Inferno Is the Most Underrated Pinhead Sequel

Long before The Black Phone, Scott Derrickson turned in a surprisingly good Hellraiser sequel called Inferno.

Suffering in Scott Derrickson's Hellraiser: Inferno
Photo: Dimension Films

Whether it’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan or Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, almost every horror franchise out there has a skeleton or two in the closet, i.e. a sequel so poorly conceived that it’s been all but erased from memory by fans. The Hellraiser movies are no exception. Though some might point to the fourth entry, 1996’s Hellraiser: Bloodline, as the bête noire of many a Pinhead fan, that movie gets a pass on account of the studio interference and directorial changes that saw a potentially inventive entry, set partially in futuristic space, rendered into an incoherent, but still at times inventive, mess.

No, the nadir instead came with 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, a sequel made in a matter of weeks to ensure Dimension FIlms retained the rights to the series. A film so horrifyingly bad that to watch it more than once would border on sadomasochism. 

In truth, few, if any, of the Hellraiser sequels prior to the latest Disney/Hulu effort have matched the dizzying blend of menacing intensity and eye-popping body horror that made the original such a distinctive experience, save for Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) and, at certain points, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992). But while most of those Pinhead-centered follow-ups can be firmly placed under the category of unmemorable rather than unwatchable, one effort from the year 2000 is worth seeking out.

Scott Derrickson Saves Pinhead from Himself

Coming at a time when the franchise was in need of a fresh direction, Hellraiser: Inferno saw the series head straight-to-DVD with Scott Derrickson assuming writing and directing duties. Thank, the Leviathan.  Derrickson would go on to make his name with movies like Sinister and, more recently, The Black Phone, but back then he was a relative newcomer, having first caught the industry’s eye with his self-produced short, “Love in the Ruins” (1995). By the turn of the millennium, he was already beginning to make a name for himself in the world of horror, writing on movies like Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) and Dracula 2000

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Hellraiser: Inferno represented Derrickson’s first move into the director’s chair, however, after he successfully sold the studio on a bold ne w vision that he and his co-writer and regular collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, had for the franchise.

In November 2000, Derrickson told Fangoria [via Clivebarker.info] that when Dimension was looking for writers for the new Hellraiser, “They passed on everyone and then came back to us and asked if we had any ideas. We brought them this one, which was so outrageous that we didn’t think they would ever do it”

His co-writer Boardman would add in the same interview that “they wanted us to bring a breath of fresh air to the series. They really wanted people who didn’t have any history with the franchise; they said they were looking for something different, and not to worry a lot about the rules and what had gone before.”

Boasting the kind of nightmarish hallucinatory imagery that would become something of a calling card for Derrickson in films like Sinister [and a killer to rival The Black Phone’s], Hellraiser: Inferno centers on Det. Joseph Thorne (One Tree Hill’s Craig Sheffer) a corrupt Denver cop who splits his time between seing his family and indulging in drugs and prostitutes. An avid chess fan with a self-confessed fascination for puzzles, Thorne gets dragged into the world of Pinhead and co. after pocketing the “Lament Configuration” puzzle box from the scene of what appears to be a ritual murder.

However, after solving the puzzle, his life quickly begins to unravel in a series of grisly murders involving multilated women and a killer with no eyes or legs. As the bodies of those connected to him begin to pile up, Thorne finds himself on the trail of an apparent serial killer known as “The Engineer,” who has been leaving the severed fingers of an unknown child at each crime scene. Worse still… the child appears to be alive.

As Thorne descends further down the rabbit hole in search of The Engineer and some much needed answers, the true horror of Thorne’s situation reveals itself in predictably macabre fashion. 

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Featuring several inspired moments of palpable dread, as well as some of the franchise’s familiar visceral gore, the film starts as a typically seedy urban detective thriller in the mold of a B-movie version of Se7en (albeit with a decidedly nu-metal 2000s soundtrack) before evolving into some more surreal and dreamlike as Thorne’s world unravels, bringing to mind Jacob’s Ladder or David Lynch by way of Pinhead. Hellraiser: Inferno is by no means perfect: Derrickson and Boardman clearly had a lot of creative ideas they wanted to play around with, but the lack of budget is a clear hindrance and gives the film  an unshakable straight-to-DVD quality. 

Nonetheless, Derrickson is still able to imbue proceedings with a scuzzy, underbelly feel that eventually gives way to something visually striking and akin to a waking nightmare. And while co-stars like Nicholas Turturro, James Remar, and The West Wing’s Kathryn Joosten are wasted in half-baked supporting roles, it should be said, Sheffer does a fine job as Thorne, the kind of morally repugnant antihero that would come to dominate TV over the decades to come.

Inferno Has Its Critics… Including Clive Barker

Unfortunately, for Derrickson at the time, Hellraiser: Inferno was not met with a positive response from either creator Clive Barker or Pinhead star Doug Bradley. Barker’s complaints initially appeared to stem from a lack of consultation on the project by Dimension Films rather than Derrickson himself. 

In an interview given as part of the September / December 2000 Lost Souls Newsletter, which was republished clivebarker.info, Barker said: “These guys sent me a script and I said if you want me involved, ask me. Let’s do a deal and get into business, but I really don’t think [the script] works right now. They said we really don’t want your opinion on it, we are going to make the movie. So they went and made the movie, and it is just an abomination.“

Barker’s main complaint about the film centered on the role of Pinhead, or rather the lack thereof, with Bradley’s character only appearing in the latter stages of the film’s final third, as events reach their denouement. The Hellraiser creator even went as far to suggest the script had simply been retooled to incorporate the Cenobites, a practice not entirely uncommon in the world of Hollywood sequel making. 

“I really hate the way he’s been treated in this film,” Barker said at the time. “It depressed me. It upset me on behalf of Doug, on behalf of myself, on behalf of the people who love these movies. I thought it was disrespectful and I felt as though he’d been tacked on just because they wanted to call it a Hellraiser movie. But it didn’t feel like a Hellraiser movie. It felt opportunistic to me.”

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Bradley echoed those complaints in an interview for the September 2002 issue of Firelight Shocks. In quotes archived by Clivebarker.info, Bradley said, “I had two opinions, one was that I didn’t think it was good enough, and the second was that I was surprised that I was in it so little. What irritates me, and I know it upsets the fans as well, was that they then smothered the video cover with pictures of Pinhead, and that tells everybody that it’s his film again—he’s the featured character. Well, no he isn’t, so don’t sell it on that.”

Yet in another appearance on the Sci-Fi Channel Bradley struck a more philosophical tone, even going as far as to suggest the lack of screentime for Pinhead was probably apt for a Hellraiser film.

“Pinhead’s barely in it, so that’s an interesting new direction for a Hellraiser film,” he said.  “But then, of course, he was barely in the first film, so it kind of makes sense.”

Despite these criticisms from the creative figures most associated with the initial success of the Hellraiser movies, the young director Derrickson defended his work and his movie.

In an email to Splatter [via Clivebarker.info] in which he described Barker’s reaction as “not entirely unexpected,” he would go on to add, “The Hellraiser franchise had [in my opinion] traveled too far in one direction and had quite simply run out of steam. The only interesting path to take in creating another sequel seemed to be the path of total reinvention. Of course Clive Barker isn’t going to appreciate that. I never expected that he would appreciate seeing the treasured iconography of his brainchild tossed out the window and replaced with a whole new set of rules.”

The Road to Hell Not Taken

Hellraiser: Inferno may not have earned a cinema release but it made enough money to spawn a follow-up. Ultimately, however, much of the new franchise would undergo a The Rise of Skywalker styled course correction, with Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) marrying many of Derrickson and Boardman’s new ideas from the previous movie with the more familiar elements of the Hellraiser franchise. It even brought back long absent but familiar faces. The most prominent of these was the return of the series’ original scream queen, Ashley Laurence, as Kirsty Cotton, along with more of Bradley as Pinhead and some uncredited input from Barker himself.

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Hellseeker was also the first of three poorly received Hellraiser films directed by Rick Bota. The franchise would never recover its footing in the years to come, culminating in the Hellraiser: Revelations debacle. Looking back on the experience, Derrickson acknowledged he took risks with his approach to Pinhead and company, but he has no regrets. 

“It was a dead franchise, and I knew that my approach was a bit subversive,” he told The New Pantagruel [via Clivebarker.info] “The fans of the franchise are split about it. Some love it, and some hate it. No one seems to be neutral about it, which I think is great.”

Thankfully, the latest version produced for Hulu looks set to break from those chains and set the franchise on an exciting new course for the future. To paraphrase Pinhead himself, they have “such sights to show you!”