This Halloween belongs to Pinhead with the arrival of Hulu’s reboot of Clive Barker’s gruesome, twisted psychosexual 1987 horror film, Hellraiser. There have been 11 films in the Hellraiser franchise, not counting additional novelizations, comics, and video games, so it’s safe to say that Pinhead has long been a horror icon. Sadly, while the lead leather-loving angel of torture remains popular, the same cannot be said for the many films in which Pinhead’s shown his studded face.
Let’s look down the dark decades of a cult classic horror franchise that’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes painful, and sometimes just a torture to watch.
11. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
When the film license for Hellraiser was about to expire at the beginning of the last decade, Dimension Films slammed this failure into production in a matter of weeks. It shows. This story of another bunch of idiotic sex freaks accidentally opening Pinhead’s puzzle box is utterly forgettable aside from a tense moment or two, and some passable practical makeup effects.
Clive Barker publicly denounced this film and its official poster, which declared the movie came “from the mind of Clive Barker.” The British novelist firmly refuted this, tweeting Revelations “didn’t even come from my butt-hole.” That seems pretty definitive.
10. Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
I’ll be honest and say I just plain hate the laziness of this title. It’s just as lazy as the writing in the screenplay of this nihilistic, direct-to-video tale starring a former MTV veejay (Kari Wuher) as a reporter traveling to Bucharest to “investigate” a cult of Pinhead worshippers. If you guess that the cultists get to eventually meet Pinhead, and it gets messy, then you have already put more thought into this movie than it’s worth. Not even a single good death scene.
9. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
The Matrix goes to Hell! There’s something cathartic about the thrill of watching an extremely annoying group of gamer teens getting ripped apart in a world based on the shittiest MMORPG you could find in a discount bin at Gamestop, circa 1999.
The extremely obvious “how do you do, fellow kids” vibes given off by the dated graphics and tech lingo is actually kind of fun here, and Lance Henriksen gives a reliably decent performance. Meanwhile Henry Cavill (Batman v Superman, The Witcher) appears in one of his earliest performances. Unfortunately, the story’s so predictable that it makes us sad. This snoozefest was original Pinhead actor Doug Bradley’s final appearance in the Hellraiser series. He deserved a better sendoff.
8. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
At first glance, this appeared to be a homecoming of sorts with Ashley Laurence, who returns as the original Hellraiser final girl, Kirsty Cotton. But it wasn’t long before her reprise seemed to change into a character sendoff nearly as enraging as Corporal Hicks’ offscreen death in Alien 3. Kirsty is killed in a car crash within the movie’s opening minutes. Afterward, her surviving husband Trevor (played by Dean Winters) is plagued with memories, or delusions, about their past.
It’s eventually revealed that Trevor was a philandering asshole who tried to get rid of his wife by sending her to Hell. Divorce is costly, but few spouses who didn’t cheat deserve such a harsh death. But as soon as the truth is revealed, we also learn Kirsty is unhinged herself, having made a deal with Pinhead before she was banished to death. See, she’ll supply him with five souls to torment in her place. Obviously, she’s going after some homewreckers.
This definitely seemed like a run of the mill thriller they slapped a little leather and blood onto to call it a Hellraiser movie. It’s also the last Hellraiser movie Clive Barker had any input on. He remained uncredited for this one. Wisely.
7. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
This one is often a fan favorite, frequently ranked below Hellraiser III. That’s for good reason (though we clearly disagree). While not particularly original as yet another horror noir detective story, a subgenre which was still in the boom years in 2000 after Se7en (1995), Inferno benefits from stars Craig Sheffer, who appeared in Barker’s other feature film, Nightbreed (1990), and James Remar. This is part Hellraiser story, part Jacob’s Ladder ripoff, particularly in the last act. But this surreal, nightmarish tale of metaphysical dread feels like it earns its ending scares.
6. Hellraiser Judgment (2018)
This entry in the Hellraiser series definitely leans into the more lurid, gory aspects of Clive Barker’s prose style. The franchise returns to the noir detective trope and looks very much like Se7en, as Inferno did before it. This results in an unoriginal but a grimly stylish horror story. It also adds more unusual lore to the Hellraiser mythos by introducing The Inquisition; it has a cameo from Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langencamp; and the torture scenes are positively vomitous. Or you could just save yourself an hour and a half and watch Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video.
5. Hellraiser (2022)
Hulu’s new reboot of Hellraiser is honestly better than a lot of us expected—although some of us are still a little perplexed by the enthusiastic notices the revival has received in some online quarters. Perhaps that’s because it’s at least better than the majority of the Hellraiser misfires that came before it.
As its own hellhound animal, David Bruckner’s reimagining works whenever it’s about leaning into the exquisite pain and decadence of its Cenobites, including an intriguing new rendition of Pinhead played by Jamie Clayton. Now Hell’s Chief Priestess, this Pinhead is more conspiratorial and slyly manipulative than Bradley’s bombastic arbiter of pain. She also elevates the movie whenever she’s onscreen.
Otherwise, however, we have a stock collection of slasher movie archetypes wandering around waiting to be gutted. It’s perhaps a brave choice by the filmmakers to create a central heroine in Riley (Odessa A’zion) who is somewhat difficult to root for. But her own struggles with addiction and selfishness do not excuse all of the other sacks of meat walking around her also acting so dim. It’s a chore watching them practically beg to be dragged off in chains.
4. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
More of a direct origin story than even Bloodline (see below), this entry in the Hellraiser series saw Clive Barker return as an executive producer. In the film, Pinhead resurrects himself and recruits a new crew of misfits to be his recalibrated Cenobite family. There’s a lot of cheesy deaths, perfect for fans of later Nightmare on Elm Street slashers, and actor Doug Bradley plays a good guy role as a new character without Pinhead’s elaborate makeup. All in all, an enjoyable, vintage-feeling slasher.
3. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
A prequel and a sequel, the fourth movie in the series is the most ambitious of the franchise. The opening third is a Gothic historical chiller set in 1796 France. It chronicles the construction of the infamous Lament Configuration puzzle box, as well as the curse laid upon its inventor Phillip LeMarchand and his descendants. Bloodline goes on to trace the LeMarchand curse from the past to present day, and finally to the distant future in outer space, where a descendant of its inventor has created a spaceship to trap and banish the Cenobites.
The movie unfortunately becomes a very rote slasher by the time it goes to space. Which is a shame given the quality moodiness of the 18th century sequences and the idea of a spaceship as a large-scale puzzle box. Fan favorite demon Angelique (Valentina Vargas) takes center stage here as well, another in Hellraiser’s tradition of having some solid female villains. In retrospect, it would’ve been nice if Hellraiser had gotten a Prey-style standalone prequel set in a particularly decadent time. (Maybe the franchise still can?) Bonus points for this being Parks & Recreation’s Adam Scott’s very first film role.
2. Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988)
Did we need a deeper look behind the Cenobites’ chain curtains? Not really, but the expansion of Clive Barker’s dark mythos was compelling and the return of the original’s best characters meshes so well with the first movie that both pictures could nearly tie for the top spot. Clare Higgins (now in Netflix’s The Sandman) takes her rightful spot center stage as we find out what happened after the adulterous, libidinous, dangerous Julia Cotton was sent to Hell by her stepdaughter Kirsty.
Even without skin, hell, maybe even because she’s without skin, Julia oozes malicious sex appeal as she gets revenge on Kirsty and especially Frank (Sean Chapman), the cowardly ex-boyfriend who jilted her for an eternity in exquisite torment. The movie also gets bonus points for revealing a dark origin story of sorts for Pinhead, who develops an unlikely bond here with Kirsty, the would-be heroine who is eager to play in Hell, but never wants to pay the toll when she enters the abyss. The movie’s hellscape is also still delightfully ‘80s, labyrinthine matte paintings and all.
1. Hellraiser (1987)
A true pinnacle of body horror, where existential despair and darkest desire intersect, this debut film made Clive Barker a successful director after already becoming an award-winning author. In a horror video landscape of teens getting picked off by a masked slasher, there was something decidedly adult about Barker’s tale of Frank Cotton and his existential ennui compelling him to open a puzzle box to a dimension of sadomasochistic, interdimensional demons in search of new boundaries to explore.
Frank’s skinned man look still holds up, particularly when practical FX is used to show his resurrection, layer by gooey layer. Pinhead’s most famous, most chillingly aloof, most poetic lines are all here, as well as some killer one-liners delivered by Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty Cotton and Andrew Robinson as her mild-mannered dad, who remains oblivious to the evil within his own family.
This mix of sex and terror, lust and repulsion, highlights the themes in Barker’s transgressive, queer spin on horror, and it’s no wonder that Pinhead continues to resonate with viewers long after the rest of the series has worn out its welcome.