There’s a lot to get through here, so let’s skim over the preamble and get straight down to business. To date there have been nine Hellraisermovies. Only the first four were released in cinemas. The Hellraiser saga, with its tales of demons, boxes and the promise of unlimited pleasure and pain, has endured for three decades, a longevity that isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.
This is my attempt to rank the many movies in reverse order of quality. May the pleasure of your reading experience be in direct inverse proportion to the pain, tears and suffering I poured into the creation of this piece of writing.
9. Hellraiser: Revelations
Not really a great surprise to see this movie languishing in last place, is it? Revelations is a stinker. Not just the worst Hellraiser movie, but quite possibly one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so gut-grindingly awful that I’ve no doubt Satan uses it to torture new arrivals to Hell, forcing them to watch it over and over and over again until they’re begging for the mercy of an eternal later era Adam Sandler marathon.
The original scripts for the first four straight-to-video sequels were standalone, non-Hellraiser horror scripts already owned by Dimension Films that were re-written to include elements of the franchise, elements more often crowbarred into the narrative than eased. Not so with Revelations, the first movie since Bloodline to boast an original Hellraiser story, complete with call-backs and homages to Barker’s seminal first two entries in the series.
The script was even written by special effects guru Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a man with both an obvious passion for the mythology and a long-standing connection to the franchise reaching all the way back to Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth. Because of this, Revelations should’ve been better than the four flicks preceding it.
But it isn’t.
Oh god, it isn’t.
Apologies for the corny nail analogy, which I sincerely hoped to avoid, but Hellraiser: Revelations really is the final nail in the coffin of the tortured franchise. The reasons for its failure are legion: the direction and camera work are boring, basic and workman-like; the dialogue is execrable; the teen leads are without substance; the acting is horrendous; the special effects are mostly laughable, and the new Pinhead is about as scary as Kenneth Williams petting puppies in a field full of posies.
It was always going to be tough filling the great Doug Bradley’s make-up chair, but the fault with Stephan Smith Collins’ performance doesn’t lie solely at the feet of insurmountable expectations. The truth is he’s… well… bad. Bradley’s Pinhead is a chilling, foreboding figure, a cold grey monster composed of grace and gravitas, whereas Collins’ Pinhead is an awkward, bloated figure with a stronger line in camp than creepy.
Early on, when Pinhead looks up at the camera and issues a whimper of satisfaction, I actually burst out laughing, half expecting a well-earned ‘Oooo, matron’ to escape from his lips. The voice is all wrong, too, but Collins can’t be blamed for that. Pinhead’s dulcet tones are provided by veteran voice-actor Fred Tatasciore, who succeeds in making Pinhead sound like Arthur Lowe narrating the Mister Men with a bad head-cold.
Doug Bradley wisely decided to bow out of number nine, citing as his reasons for doing so the miniscule budget and laughably short production timescale. Revelations was literally churned out in a last minute panic so that Dimension films could retain the rights for the keenly anticipated Hellraiser reboot, although I don’t know how strong the appetite is for more Hellraiser – even more Barker-helmed Hellraiser– after this wham-bam am-dram sham of a movie.
The first part of the movie follows the exploits of Nico and Stephen, a couple of youths armed with a video-camera on boozy road trip from LA to Tijuana. Their banter is so eye-gougingly bad that it wouldn’t shock me to discover that a troop of monkeys with head injuries were given typewriters and asked to come up with a special Halloween episode of Hollyoaks Later.
The youngsters arrive in Tijuana, and Nico celebrates by getting drunk and murdering a prostitute in a toilet cubicle. Spring break, bitches!
Stephen agrees not to report his pal to the police, because lads will be lads and various other reasons that don’t make any sense, and the pair carry on drinking. They encounter a mysterious vagrant (a call-back to the box-guarding hell-hobo from Hellraisers I and III), who I’m sure is supposed to be chilling, but his face, a shifting sand of gurns and twitches, lends him the less-than-terrifying appearance of a man perpetually ping-ponging between constipation and climax. He gives them the lament configuration, which they take back to their motel room.
One terrible special effect later, Pinhead steps through a rent in reality to indulge in his favorite hobby of flesh-tearing and soul-harvesting.
The action jumps forward a year, hurtling us into an unforgivably dull dinner party attended by both sets of parents, and Stephen’s sister (who is also Nico’s girlfriend). We learn that Stephen’s family has the video tape, which we see Stephen’s sister viewing and responding to with all of the verisimilitude of a dead racoon.
Presumably the Mexican authorities didn’t think the tape was important enough to keep, even though it contains a) evidence of the murder of a hooker, and b) incontrovertible proof of the existence of demons. But maybe that sort of thing happens in Mexico all the time. I don’t know. I’ve never been.
Both sets of parents are just about to engage in another bout of badly written, painfully awkward dialogue, when a blood-covered Stephen staggers into the house. But – twist alert! – it’s not Stephen who has returned, but Nico, the little skin-stealing psychopath. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is in the Hellraiser universe to remove another person’s skin and slip it neatly and convincingly over your own, especially considering how hard it is for me to fit convincingly into some of my own T-shirts.
Through flashbacks we visit the moments immediately after Nico’s encounter with Pinhead. Nico’s been left a puny, skinless mess, a la Frank Cotton from the first movie. Nico swiftly manipulates Stephen into supplying him with a steady stream of prostitute victims whose flesh and blood he needs to regenerate. It’s all very reminiscent of the first Hellraiser movie, except for the fact that it’s utterly terrible.
Dialogue like this: “HER BLOOD BROUGHT ME BACK. BRING ME MORE,” is enough to make Fear Dot Com seem like Shakespeare. Nico’s final victim is Stephen himself, who is claimed by Pinhead and turned into a Darth Maul-alike mini-me. The less said about that the better, especially since I’ve already used the word ‘execrable’ earlier in the article.
Back at the dinner party, before Pinhead returns one final, underwhelming time, Nico holds both families hostage with a shotgun. He delivers a Fight Club-esque diatribe against modern society and the phony, bourgeois values of his parents, a jarring development that feels about as congruous as an 80’s Arnie film closing with a good-natured Russian poetry-slam. People die, Pinhead shows up, Nico’s mother gets yanked off to hell, and viewers are left lamenting the loss of seventy-five minutes of their all-too-short lives that could’ve been better invested staring listlessly at a rotting cabbage. I think Clive Barker said it best when he used Twitter to subtly distance himself from the production:
“Hello, my friends. I want to put on record that the flic (sic) out there using the word Hellraiser IS NO FUCKIN’ CHILD OF MINE! I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”
Hellraiser fun fact: The version of Revelations I watched was hardcoded with Dutch subtitles. I learned that ‘Proost’ is Dutch for ‘cheers.’ That’s the most fun thing I can tell you about this movie.
8. Hellraiser: Inferno
In Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Pinhead utters the line: “And down the dark decades of your pain, this will seem like a memory of heaven.” I’m sure the Black and Decker Soul-Wrecker wasn’t trying to be meta, but in retrospect it’s hard not to interpret those words as a prophecy about future entries in the Hellraiser franchise. Revelations aside, which I’m loathe even to class as a movie, Infernois by far the worst of the Hellraiserfranchise’s post-Barker straight-to-video efforts.
Inferno stars Craig Schaeffer (a poor man’s David Boreanaz) as Detective Joseph Thorne, the sort of cop who doesn’t mind cutting corners in his quest for justice. He also doesn’t mind helping himself to drugs, money, and prostitutes… but he does enjoy the odd game of chess and knows what a palindrome is, so by God he’s complex. Thorne’s friend and partner, the ridiculously palindromic Tony Nenonen, is there to provide bumbling assistance and some mild comic relief, but only if you like your comedy devoid of all humor.
Thorne and Nenonen encounter the lament configuration box at a grizzly crime scene. Thorne steals the box from police evidence and takes it, and a prostitute, with him to a sleazy motel, because nothing complements an evening with a sex worker quite like opening a gateway to Hell. Opening the box is supposed to be an extraordinarily difficult feat, but like most people in the Hellraiser universe, Thorne manages it by rubbing a thumb over its lid for about three seconds.
In a break from established mythology, Thorne isn’t torn apart the instant he opens the box. Instead, he’s briefly haunted by nightmarish visions of the Cenobites, a sequence that is arguably the movie’s best (although there isn’t much competition, to be honest). Two female Cenobites force their fingers through and under Thorne’s skin, caressing his rib-cage and internal organs in a perfect mingling of pleasure and pain. It’s gruesomely effective; three words that constitute the last and only compliment I’ll pay to Inferno.
The next day, Thorne discovers the murdered and mutilated body of the prostitute, and realises that he’s the prime suspect. He attempts to frame Nenonen for it, because that’s how Thorne rolls, but as the bodies start to pile up at crime scenes all across the city he quickly realises that his superpower of being a massive shit will have to take a back seat to his amazingness at solving puzzles. He plays chess and identifies palindromes remember!
Each fresh crime scene he encounters contains not only the corpse of someone linked to him, but also the dismembered finger of a child, a child who may still be alive. Thorne races against time to save his own skin, hoping to take a shot at redemption along the way. As his frenzied investigation unfolds he finds himself on the trail of a shadowy criminal mastermind known as ‘The Engineer’, a name that’s repeated about eighty million times throughout the movie lest you forget it.
I suppose the premise of the movie is rather good, but the execution is harrowing and futile, much like an actual, real-life execution. As the movie descends deeper and deeper into madness and unreality it becomes sillier rather than scarier: more film har-har than film noir. The best example of this is the scene in which Thorne is assaulted by ninja Indians at the behest of an angry cowboy, all to the tune of a ’70s porno film.
The movie’s major twist, revealed at its climax by a scarcely-seen Pinhead, is that Thorne has been trapped in Hell ever since opening the box, and we with him. The Engineer is Thorne’s own evil incarnate. The missing child is Thorne, too, each freshly discovered finger representing another shard of innocence that’s been severed by his adult self. All of Thorne’s travails have been a punishment visited upon him by Pinhead, who apparently fancies himself as something of a moral arbiter.
The repackaging of Pinhead as a Judeo-Christian demigod tasked with bringing the sinful to account doesn’t really fit with the established MO of the character, but then consistency has never been gospel in the Hellraiser-verse.
Thorne wakes up behind his desk at the police station with a jolt, and heaves a huge sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it’s all just a wicked illusion, and as the cycle starts to repeat itself once more, Thorne realises that he’s trapped and damned to repeat the events of Infernofor all eternity. Certainly this is an almost unimaginable horror, given how awful it is to spend just ninety minutes watching it.
Hellraiser fun fact: Clive Barker didn’t like this film either.
7. Hellraiser: Hellseeker
On first glimpse, Hellseeker has much to commend it. Visually, it looks pretty good, certainly greater than the sum of its budget. Dean Winters, fresh from Ozbut pre-Dennis Duffy, does an able job in the lead role as scheming, amnesia-ridden dirtbag Trevor; the supporting cast is largely good, too, or at least competent. Doug Bradley’s back in full demon regalia doing what he does best, and Pinhead even gets a few pleasingly effective moments, particularly in an acupuncture scene that appears midway through the movie.
Despite these plus points I’ve still decided to consign Hellseekerto the nether regions of this list. Its crime? Squandering potential.
If this movie had been executed with a little more creative care and forethought it could’ve been the come-back the franchise so sorely needed after the failed grandeur of Bloodline and the faecal-flavoured lollipop of Inferno. Regrettably, despite its potential, Hellseekerends up being just another cut-and-paste cash-grab of a movie.
At the beginning of Hellseeker, Kirsty – of Hellraisers I to III fame – is re-introduced to us as Trevor’s wife. Moments later Trevor loses control of their car, crashing it into a lake. Poor Kirsty drowns. Or does she? The remainder of the movie follows Trevor’s journey through a labyrinth of shifting realities (yawn) as he attempts to discover what happened to him, why Kirsty’s body was never found and why he’s the prime suspect in her disappearance.
Along the way there’s a multitude of sleazy sex scenes, a mounting body count, and various fleeting appearances by the cenobites, all of which leaves Trevor doubting his sanity and innocence.
Hmmm, that all sounds a little familiar…
Plot-wise, Hellseeker’s pretty much a re-tread of Inferno, but with a few different-flavored twists. Ready for the movie’s double-whammy?
Kirsty didn’t die in the car accident: Trevor did. And it wasn’t an accident: Kirsty shot him dead as he was driving. All of this is revealed to Trevor in the closing minutes of the movie, during which Pinhead utters one of his most woeful lines ever: “Welcome to the worst nightmare of all: reality!” That’s right, Trevor, you’ve been dead the whole time! At least you never got sentenced to Groundhog Day like poor Joseph in the last movie.
Admittedly, Hellseeker’s Sixth Sense-ian twist isn’t a bad one, but the road leading to that final destination is a narrative traffic jam, replete with all the boredom and irritation of a real traffic jam. The revelation of Trevor’s death should’ve been wrapped up early enough in the movie to allow space and time for the ‘Killer Kirsty’ twist to develop. Kirsty’s shifting motivations aren’t given time to evolve organically, and as a consequence her transformation from mild-mannered wife to vengeful, multi-dimensional murderess makes little sense.
Kirsty’s reunion with Pinhead should’ve been the movie’s lynchpin, but it ends up striking a very unsatisfying note. Kirsty again talks her way out of eternal torture and damnation (I think Ol’ Hammer Head kind of likes her) by offering Pinhead five souls in place of hers, souls that she proceeds to collect by murdering people. I get that she was miffed at the whole ‘my husband and his pal tried to kill me for inheritance’ thing (Trevor tries to kill her by getting her to open the box, and when she discovers this she opens it to spite him, which of course makes perfect sense), but I don’t believe that the Kirsty we know would turn to murder so easily.
The ease with which Kirsty frames Trevor and gets away with it also stretches credibility. The lead detective at Trevor’s murder scene basically says to Kirsty: ‘Ah, so he was the one who killed those people and you found out and shot him in the face? Cheers for clearing that up. We won’t be needing you to come down to the station, love, this ten-minute chat will suffice. Just you go home and put your feet up. Oh, hey, before you go, don’t forget to take this box that was in the car. I probably should bag it for evidence, but, you know, you’re really pretty and all, and what’s the worst that could happen?’
Shame on you, Hellseeker. Shame on you.
Hellraiser fun fact: The part of Trevor’s wife wasn’t written with Ashley Lawrence in mind. Her old pal Doug Bradley tracked her down and convinced her to reprise the role, which presumably he accomplished by appealing to their long-standing friendship, rather than relying on the allure of fifty bucks for five days’ filming.
6. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline
The finished movie wasn’t the one that writer Peter Atkins and director Kevin Yagher set out to create. The studio meddled with Bloodline to such an extent that Yagher disavowed himself of any directorial credit, which is why the movie bears the mark of Alan Smithee. Sans meddling, Bloodline could’ve been a worthy epilogue for the series. As it stands, it’s an occasionally fascinating, muddled mess of a movie that attempts to shoot for the stars, but ends up burning to a cinder before it even breaks orbit.
Bloodline certainly can’t be faulted for its ambition. It’s both a prequel and a sequel to the first three movies, a sprawling saga stretched across three time-lines, linked together by the descendants of Philip Lemarchand, the man who originally created the lament configuration box (the men from the Lemarchand/Merchant bloodline are all played by Bruce Ramsey). The narrative takes us from a demon summoning ritual in 16th century France to a robot-tastic Pinhead-busting master plan on a space station in the 22nd century, leaving time in the middle for a visit the 1990s, and the Lament-themed office building glimpsed at the end of Hellraiser III.
Yes, Pinhead goes to space in this one. Horror aficionados tend to regard any franchise that falls back on the ‘X-in-Space trope’ as one that has reached its creative nadir, citing Jason X and Leprechaun 4: In Space as evidence. I’d like to apply for a special exemption for Bloodline on the grounds that the movie’s space-based denouement is actually quite satisfying. It’s just a pity that most of the space segment leading up to that point involves watching an assortment of thinly-drawn stock characters you couldn’t give a toss about being hunted, hacked and killed by the Cenobites.
The France-set portion of the movie is by far its most effective. The origins of the box are explored, and we’re introduced to the character of Angelique, a poor peasant girl who finds herself transformed into a queen of Hell to satisfy the whims of a psychotic aristocrat. The middle, ‘present-day’ section is a bit of a mess, and contains most of the movie’s worst moments and ideas, not least of which are Pinhead’s foray into child abduction, and his stupid-looking pet dog.
Pinhead and Angelique team up to force John Merchant (he of the fabled Bloodline and architect of the lament configuration office-building) to design a laser light-show that will somehow permanently open the gates of Hell. Pinhead’s first encounter with Angelique promises the unfolding of a complex and interesting relationship, but ultimately her potential as a powerful peer and worthy adversary is destroyed when Pinhead dispatches her as easily as he would any of the expendable human sinners that normally find themselves at his mercy.
Pinhead himself is returned to Hell just as easily, after Merchant’s wife activates the box by simply chucking it onto the floor. It’s hard to resist the thought that Pinhead and Angelique are the Dastardly and Muttley of cunning plans.
Pinhead himself is one of Bloodline’s major faults. There’s just too much of him. Or, rather, there’s just not enough good Pinhead. Doug Bradley always turns in an impressive performance as the nail-headed demigod, but unfortunately much of his dialogue in this movie is either eye-roll inducing or boring and superfluous. He still gets the odd classic line (“This is a holocaust waiting to wake itself” and “A garden of Eden: a garden of flesh” spring to mind), but most of the time Pinhead just goes on and on.
His incessant blethering even ends up costing him his life. Right at the end of the movie he’s too busy yakking to notice that the space-based Ramsey has pulled the old ‘ner ner ner ner ner, you’ve been speaking to a hologram’ trick on him. Thus, Pinhead goes to his doom with all the grace and dignity of Wyle E Coyote plummeting towards the bottom of a desert canyon.
Hellraiser fun fact: Guillermo del Toro was originally lined up to direct.
5. Hellraiser: Deader
Deader’s first half did a good job of convincing me that I was watching a good movie, and a good Hellraisermovie to boot. The story revolves around Amy Klein, a sort of Lara Croft/Jessica Hyde hybrid. She’s an American gonzo journalist working for a London-based fringe publication called The Underground. When her editor, Charles Richmond, plays her a video-tape purporting to show a murder/resurrection cult operating in Romania (the titular Deaders), she can’t wait to jump on the first Ryanair flight over there and pick up the story. Before long she’s trapped in a battle between Pinhead and the Deaders, the details of which are sketchy at best.
The leader of the Deaders is a man named Winter, a relative of the Ramsey family whose ancestor first designed the lament configuration. Winter looks a bit like Jarvis Cocker playing a panto pirate, which somewhat diminishes his impact as a scary antagonist. Winter wants to vanquish Pinhead, but if he opens the box in the normal fashion, he’ll get his soul torn apart and no mistake, guv’nor.
But if a person whom he’s killed and resurrected opens the box then Pinhead… he… em, you see… Pinhead will… um… maybe Hell will explode or something? But Winter can’t use just any old resurrected person; his saviour has to be special. Step forward Amy Klein, who possesses the necessary specialness to thwart Pinhead’s plans because she killed her abusive father when she was a child.
You see? Crystal clear.
Deader shot in Romania for budgetary reasons, but I love that the location was acknowledged and embraced, as opposed to the film-makers trying to convince us that it was actually London or New York. The setting helps to amplify the uneasy, uncertain mood of the movie, and it all somehow feels very Hellraisery.
There are two very effective horror moments in Deader’s first half. The first is when Amy has to retrieve the lament configuration from the feet of a corpse that’s slumped and hanged over a toilet. Although it’s obvious in terms of horror conventions what’s about to happen, the moment when the corpse betrays its deadness still provides a jump. The whole sequence is genuinely creepy and suspenseful, a duo of sensations that are sadly missing from a great many of the later sequels.
The second moment occurs when Amy opens the box. Pinhead’s chains snap out and lock around her head, slamming her face into the box, rendering Amy terrified and helpless. It’s a nicely executed special effect, and suitably disturbing to watch.
I also really liked the dystopian punk train that Amy encounters during her investigation into the Deaders: a fully-operational private carriage on the Romanian underground devoted to sex, flesh and drugs, presided over by cockney wide boy Joey (played by Marc Warren). The train has a very Mad Max/David Lynch feel, thanks to its garish, graffiti-splattered interior, and debauched denizens dressed in over-the-top, quasi-Gaultier garb.
When Amy returns to the train later in the movie to find it a death-filled husk, the transformation screams Clive Barker, although the great man regrettably (though perhaps understandably) had nothing whatsoever to do with the production, having washed his hands of the franchise a little after Bloodline. It works as a nice nod.
Towards the end of the movie the plot threatens to tread the same ground as Hellseekerand Inferno with its ‘what’s real anyway?’ narrative jumps, with people saying cod-philosophical horseshit like, ‘You want to go home? But you are home, Amy.’ At one point Amy jolts awake in bed with a knife lodged in her back, and starts to scream, wrestle and bleed all over her house in her struggle to remove it. Many have praised this scene for its well-crafted gruesomeness, but I’m afraid it gave me more in the way of giggles than goosebumps.
Mercifully, these jumps are only hallucinations, although in retrospect I think I would have preferred yet another Inferno/Hellseeker-ish twist over the dumb, deeply ho-hum ending we actually got: a phoned-in Pinhead performance, a Deader kebab and Marc Warren’s character playing it for laughs with a cheeky pre-mortem ‘Oh for fuck sake.’
Awful. I gather that the original, non-Hellraiser-related script for this movie was pretty good. I wish they’d made that instead.
Hellraiser fun fact: You may recognise the actor who plays Amy’s editor as the senator addicted to public climax in Chris Morris’s brilliant TV satire Brass Eye.
4. Hellraiser: Hellworld
I know what you’re thinking. How could I have had the gall to place Hellworld– considered by many fans the worst of the franchise by a considerable margin – so high up this list? I’ll try to explain.
There’s an episode of the long-running sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf called The Inquisitor, in which a rogue simulant – the eponymous villain of the title – travels through time eradicating those he feels have squandered the gift of life. He replaces them with the never-weres and could’ve-beens – the sperms that weren’t quite quick enough, the droids that were never assembled – and then purges the original sinners from the universe’s time-line.
Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, and Cat all face judgement. Rimmer and the Cat pass: Kryten and Lister fail. When Lister questions why it is he and Kryten who are facing deletion and not Rimmer and the Cat, the Inquisitor tells him: “By their own low standards they have acquitted themselves. But you, and the mechanoid could’ve been so much more.”
Simply put, I feel the same way about Hellworldas the Inquisitor does about the Cat and Rimmer.
Inferno, Hellseeker, and Deader all tried to be good Hellraiser movies. Their writers, producers, and directors all tried to remain as faithful as they could to Barker’s original vision given the restrictions of their scripts, shooting schedules, and budgets. All three movies failed, some more miserably than others. Hellworldis happy to be exactly what it is: a fun, teen-focused, semi-generic, fully-stupid slasher movie that cares not a jot for the legacy of its source material, save for the inclusion of a few corny call-backs (Hillbound Drive, Leviathan House) and some fleeting appearances from Pinhead and co.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Hellworld is a great movie, or even a particularly good movie. Truth be told, it’s pretty awful.
Here are some excerpts from my viewing notes to prove that I’m not completely deluded:
Horrible exposition, terrible dialogue; Awful banter, I can’t wait for them all to die; Pinhead does NOT decapitate people; KARATE?! REALLY?! OUT OF NOWHERE?
In the universe established by the movie Hellraiserexists as a work of fiction, and Hellworld is a spin-off point-and-click game that is inexplicably popular with online teenagers despite looking like it was made on an Amiga circa 1989. The game is implicated in the death of a teenage boy (through boredom, I would assume), and so his close friends and fellow Hellworlders, an assortment of teen-horror stereotypes, vow never to play it again. Until, that is, they’re coaxed back by the chance of winning an invitation to a special, Hellworld-themed sex-n-drugs shindig, held in a creepy old house in the countryside.
The party planner and evening’s host is played by horror and sci-fi veteran Lance Henriksen, a casting decision that is one of the movie’s few truly redeeming factors. As the party hits full swing, Henriksen and Pinhead begin picking the youngsters off one-by-one in a series of yukky but unoriginal ways, each kill inspired by a different horror franchise. The film’s twist is that Henriksen is the father of the teens’ dead friend, and the party is his chosen vehicle for revenge.
Little that we see happening at the party actually happens (hmmm, that plot trope sounds awfully familiar… where on earth do I recognise it from?) because the teens actually spend the majority of the movie encased in coffins in shallow graves, drugged out of their faces on powerful hallucinogens administered by Henriksen. Their unfolding nightmares – and deaths – are the result of Henriksen squatting over their graves shouting terrifying nonsense at them. Creepier still, he even makes one of them believe he’s being fellated. Something tells me Henriksen’s not just in it for the revenge.
When my brain first absorbed the twist it said to me: ‘Ah, okay. That makes sense.’ Milliseconds later it said: ‘No. No it doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense at all.’ Billiseconds later it reached the conclusion: ‘Ach, I don’t actually care anymore.’ It’s a good job, because the movie keeps twisting beyond all comprehension.
Pinhead’s not real. Yes he is! Henriksen’s now a ghost! Look, he’s in the back seat of a car! My brain was dead by that point.
Hands up, people. This film sucks hard. It was only devilment that made me place it so high up the rankings. Every Hellraiser ranking list in existence puts this movie in the bottom two, and I just wanted to see if I could justify a different placing. But I can’t. I just can’t. Don’t worry, I’ll save you the trouble and tear my own soul apart.
Hellraiser fun fact: One of the American cops who calls at the house is played by Victor McGuire, AKA Ron, Gary’s grating best mate in the horrendously amoral time-travelling cheat-a-thon, Goodnight Sweetheart. Oh, and some guy called Henry Cavill is in it, too.
3. Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth
Hellraiser III marks the moment when the franchise became a franchise: a product, a money-spinner. Hellraiser III detaches itself from the baroque, phantasmagorical stylings of Clive Barker and instead allies itself with the flashy, noisy, vapid excesses of Hollywood. While the first two films stood apart from the horror genre pack, Hellraiser III is very much a conventional action-horror flick, and recognizably a child of the early 1990s. Goodbye eerie sense of dread, haunting images and the exploration of sexual themes. Hello mass-killings, explosions, and a fire-breathing cenobite. Imagine a movie producer watching The Remains Of The Day and thinking to himself, “That was alright. But when we do the sequel we’ll give Hopkins an RPG and a helicopter.”
That’s not to say that Hellraiser III stinks. It doesn’t. It’s actually very enjoyable, if a little preposterous in places (and that’s saying something in a franchise about a demonic Rubik’s Cube). It’s just not very Clive Barkery. When New World Cinema collapsed, so too did Barker’s creative control over the Hellraiser universe. New overlords Dimension Films wanted a third movie that was bigger, bolder, brasher, and, crucially, more commercially viable, while Barker wanted to forgo the pyrotechnics and follow through on his stylistic and thematic vision.
Money won, as it often does, and Barker and the studio parted ways. Although he wasn’t directly involved in the production process, Barker did briefly return to the project – at the studio’s behest, and for a fee – to do some cosmetic repair work on the finished film.
It’s a shame we never got to see another full-Barker Hellraiser, as some of the ideas and outlines considered for the movie were incredibly interesting, including a ‘genesis of the cenobites’ saga set in Ancient Egypt, and the tale of a corrupted and corrupting priest running a back-street brothel. Pinhead was dead, and staying dead. Julia – the wicked step-mother extraordinaire from Hellraisers I and II – was to be the star and returning villain of the series.
Two things happened to upset that plan: one, actress Clare Higgins declined to reprise the role of Julia; and, two, everyone underestimated Pinhead’s popularity with the movie-going public. The success of Hellbound cemented Pinhead’s place in the pantheon of horror icons, alongside Messrs Krueger and Voorhees. People wanted more of him. And more they got.
Pinhead begins the movie entombed in the mattress-birthed statue seen at the end of Hellbound. A rich boorish ballbag by the name of JP Munro buys the statue from a scruffy Kris Kristofferson lookalike and has it delivered to his nightclub. A little smidgeon of rat’s blood splattered on its surface is enough to reawaken Pinhead, but not enough to release him from his marble prison. JP eventually has the statue moved into his bedroom, after which Pinhead seizes the chance to break out his best Faustian banter.
Although Pinhead looks ridiculous encased in the statue – reminiscent of Kryten when he was crushed into a cube in season six of Red Dwarf – it’s interesting and entertaining to see the former demigod stripped of his powers, and forced to employ cunning rather than brute force in a bid to get them back. JP enters into a pact with Pinhead which ultimately costs him his life, and Pinhead is free to… well, generally tear shit up.
This is a vastly different Pinhead to the enigmatic, near-monosyllabic monster we met in the first two movies. The Pinhead of Hellraiser III is a hammer-headed Bond villain; a cackling megalomaniacal mayhem-maker now composed entirely of evil after being separated from the last vestiges of his former humanity by Channard at the (anti) climax of Hellraiser II: Hellbound. Pinhead cracks jokes, delivers killer speeches (in my humble opinion, his dialogue and delivery is at best in this movie) massacres people in nightclubs, and blows up police cars. I actually cheered when Pinhead was released from his statue, which illustrates perfectly how far this movie deviates from Barker’s original vision. In Hellraiser III, Pinhead goes full Freddy.
Drippy reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell, aka Deep Space 9‘s Jadzia Dax) teams up with the ghostly essence of Pinhead’s former human self, Captain Elliott Spencer, who appears to Joey in a recurring dream she’s been having about the death of her father in Vietnam. Elliott fought in WWI you see, and so he can jump into people’s dreams if they’re dreaming about wars, because ‘a dream of one war is a dream of all wars.’ Good, I’m glad we cleared that up.
“Pinhead is unstoppable,” says Elliott, “but not really, cause we’re about to stop him.” I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. “Pinhead is unbound by any rules,” he continues, “Erm, except for the rule that states he can only take the box if he’s offered it. So we’d better just hope he doesn’t infiltrate your dreams pretending to be your dead dad or anything like that.”
Yes, they defeat Pinhead, and, yes, their journey to victory is a Hell-load of daft – with lame plot contrivances, unforgivably silly cenobites, numbskull cops and a few too many explosions – but it’s also undeniably fun. And there isn’t a reality-bending twist in sight.
Hellraiser fun fact: There are many allusions to A Nightmare On Elm Street in this movie: there’s a silhouetted figure in the restaurant at JP’s club with Freddy-like fingers; Joey’s cameraman Doc takes on a suspiciously Krueger-like growl following his transformation into a cenobite; and the whole concept of Pinhead and Elliott using dreams to infiltrate Joey’s thoughts is Krueger’s signature move.
Hellraiser was, and is, a ground-breaking work of horror, something that’s easy to forget with the passage of time and a comet’s tail of inferior sequels. Clive Barker showed the world that cinematic horror could be gruesome, scary, thought-provoking and rich with subtext, and needn’t fall back on the standard ’80s stalk-and-slash formula to succeed.
The story is a simple one. A jaded sensation-seeker called Frank opens the now-infamous box in the attic of a house owned by his family, and gets torn apart by the Cenobites for his trouble. Frank’s essence is left trapped and dormant in the room. A little while later, Larry, Frank’s rather staid and douche-baggy brother, moves in to the house with his wife, Julia. We learn that Julia once had a torrid and passionate affair with box-opening bad-boy Frank shortly before her wedding to Larry, the memory of which still gives her hot flushes.
A few drops of Larry’s blood on the attic floor trigger Frank’s resurrection, and he regains some semblance of corporeal form as an anatomically-accurate, skinless monster. Julia discovers him, and instead of recoiling in horror, she promises to help him regain his power. This she does by luring a succession of horny businessmen to the attic so that Frank can feast on their flesh. Eventually, Frank kills his brother, donning his skin and taking his place in the household. Larry’s daughter Kirsty is the only one who can stop the gruesome twosome, but to do so she’s forced to team up with Pinhead and his rag-tag band of Cenobites.
So that’s the plot, but what is Hellraiser actually about? A New Line exec once joked that Hellraiser should have been called: What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck. Indeed, one of Den of Geek‘s writers recently explored the idea that Hellraiser is in fact a twisted romantic love story between Frank and Julia, which you can read here.
That’s one interpretation, but there are countless more. Is Hellraisera story about Kirsty’s sexual awakening? Is it an AIDS parable? Certainly the movie – and the novella upon which it is based – allowed Clive Barker to explore his own experiences of sex and sexuality, particularly what it meant to be homosexual during a time when homosexuality was still largely a taboo subject. Could the Cenobites be an ugly manifestation of the conservative culture’s ignorance, or a defiant, two-fingered salute in its face?
Some people reckon that Hellraiseris actually about Frank “coming out,” and his quest to find acceptance, whatever the cost; that he disguises himself in his brother’s skin to create the impression of a “normal” family man, despite his fondness for feasting on male flesh. Or perhaps Frank’s punishment at the hands of the Cenobites is an echo of how Barker himself felt when he first started to acknowledge and embrace his sexuality. Who knows?
The key to unlocking the secrets of Hellraisermight be found in all, some or none of the above. The point here is that Hellraiser’s rich subtext encourages intelligent discussion and interpretation of its themes, something that can’t be said of the vast majority of horror films.
Despite its ageless story of lust, longing, and the consequences of desire Hellraiser is very much a child of the 1980s as evidenced by the Rubik’s cube that propels the narrative, and Julia’s mullet and shoulder-pads. You can also see it in the special effects, most of which elicit that familiar pitying cry, “Well, they were good for their time.” Some of the flesh effects scream plasticine, and The Engineer – the Quatto-like Hell-beast that scuttles down a hallway in pursuit of Kirsty – now looks, from our 2015 vantage point, clumsy and dated (it doesn’t help that you can see the trolley upon which it’s being wheeled).
There are exceptions: Frank’s resurrection, a grimy, gooey, grubby, sickeningly raw sequence, is masterfully done, and still retains the power to shock (Side note: The look of the hatching shape-shifter from Fringe’s second season episode The Man From The Other Side, is a wonderful homage to Frank’s yucky comeback).
If there’s one element of Hellraiserthat has aged especially well, it’s the Cenobites. Festooned with wounds, and bathed in eerie light, Hellraiser’s quartet of aristocratic demons – or S&M butchers from beyond the grave if you prefer – appear just as otherworldly and terrifying now as they did when the film was first released. In the novella The Hellbound Heart Pinhead only appears for a paragraph, and is described as having a screechy, high-pitched voice. Here he’s the undisputed Lead Cenobite (he wouldn’t become known officially as Pinhead until the third movie), oozing a clinical, intelligent malevolence as he takes care of business alongside his bondage-geared goons Chatterer, Peter Griffin, and Throat-Vagina-Lady. Their grouping has never been surpassed, and they remain the original and best Cenobites.
And for many – and almost for me – the first movie will always be the original and best entry in the series.
PS: Special mention must go to Christopher Young’s score in this movie and the sequel, which is simply tremendous and lends some orchestral grandeur to proceedings.
Hellraiser fun facts: The MPAA limited the number of consecutive buttock thrusts that could be shown in Frank and Julia’s sex scene, stating that three or more thrusts would be obscene. This is a film where people get ripped apart by chains. Plus, the actor who played Larry also played Garak in Deep Space Nine.
1. Hellraiser II: Hellbound
Hellbound is a less coherent film than its predecessor, but it scores the top spot thanks to its stunning visuals, bold world-building and plethora of skin-crawlingly effective horror moments.
Hellbound picks up immediately after the events of the first movie. Kirsty is kicking back in her local friendly nuthouse, the Channard Institute, telling tall tales of demons and gateways to Hell. The bad news is that the detectives sent to question her think that she’s a whack-job. The good news is that her doctor – the eponymous Channard – believes her story and doesn’t think that she’s insane. The very worst news of all is that he believes her story because he’s a crazed occultist who knows all about the box and its fun-sized assortment of Cenobites, and wants the power of Hell for himself (Channard is played with understated, clinical menace by Dunfermline-born actor Kenneth Cranham, whom you may recognise as Vicar Oddie from BBC3’s fantastic – and sorely missed – series In The Flesh).
Kirsty teams up with Gorman from Aliens and a young mute girl called Tiffany with a penchant for solving puzzles. The layers of Channard’s insanity are gradually peeled back to reveal a single-minded monster already colder and crueller than the creatures he seeks to summon. His office at home is a bric-a-brac stall of macabre mementoes and Lament Configuration memorabilia. He uses the blood-soaked mattress seen at the end of the first movie to resurrect Julia, which he accomplishes by sacrificing one of his more deranged patients, plucked from a dingy cell in the restricted basement area beneath his Institute.
Julia rises from the mattress skinless and hungry, and proceeds to feed upon the poor demented patient, in a scene that is commendably disgusting and disturbing. Channard – his desire for Julia the equal of his desire for the box – brings her scores of victims, whose skinned cadavers end up swinging from the rafters. Channard kisses Julia. Julia kisses Gorman to death. Kirsty arrives just in time to witness Tiffany opening the box for the doctor and his newly resurrected mistress.
The first half of the movie is creepy, suspenseful and largely entertaining, despite the presence of the usual smattering of hoary dialogue. The second half is, well… different? Kirsty, Tiffany, Channard, and Julia take a trip through Hell’s labyrinthine corridors, at which point the story becomes as lost as the characters. The plot – by this point almost gaseous – floats here and there and wherever it likes before simply evaporating out of existence. Things happen, then some other things happen, then some more things happen, and it’s all rather bitty and inconsequential.
Kirsty’s quest to rescue her father from Hell proves pointless when she discovers that he isn’t there. Frank’s there, being tortured by the eternally-undelivered promise of sex. Julia gets her revenge on Frank by skinning and killing him, even though he’s already dead, and then she loses her skin in a tunnel-based whirlwind. Channard wanders around gawping at Hell’s impossible vista, before being wrapped in wire and bundled into a head-whisking death-pod. People traipse around uncertainly, visiting weird rooms and experiencing harrowing visions, all while frantically calling out each other’s names.
As much as I enjoy and admire Hellbound, I’m forced to concede that critic Roger Ebert wasn’t wholly wrong about it. Hellbound’s second half feels less like a movie, and more like some avant garde experiment, or a compilation of Rammstein videos. The movie’s climax – in which Pinhead is turned human and murdered by Channard, and Channard in turn is vanquished by Kirsty – is rushed, garbled and underwhelming, possibly as a result of Barker and co running out of time and money.
Adult me sees this as a problem, but the 12-year-old me who first watched Hellbound with his big cousin, wide-eyed and pleasantly traumatised, is still enraptured by the grimly beautiful matte paintings of Hell’s impossible geography, and the sight of Leviathan perched above the dark labyrinth spelling out ‘God’ in a foghorn of Morse code.
The problem is, and has always been, that Clive Barker’s fecund and mighty imagination is simply too big for the screen. Any attempt to capture the essence of Barker’s books and stories – even by the man himself – is bound to fall far short of the worlds and creatures he’s capable of building in your mind. My advice to you is watch the first clutch of Hellraisers if you must, but if you really want to experience Barker at his best, then read his books. Stephen King wasn’t lying when he described Barker as ‘the future of horror.’ That future may now be the past, but Barker’s work is timeless, and endlessly rewarding.
Hellraiser fun fact: Director Tony Randel also directed the summer blockbuster Power Rangers In Space.
Coda: The Hellraiser graphic novels showed us that there’s life in the old God yet. Fingers crossed for a new Hellraiser movie that brings back the glory days…