Franchise Corner Entry: HELLRAISER
HELLRAISER ***** UK 1987 Dir: Clive Barker.
A relatively huge hit in a late-80’s marketplace starved of decent British horror films, Clive Barker’s feature directing debut was also a visceral breath of fresh air for VHS-weaned horror fans of a certain age. It has aged well, thanks to the pervasive sense of Barker’s perverse artistic sensibility, even if its more ambitious FX moments are evidently under-funded and New World’s decision to dub over most of the English voices results in some understandably awkward performances. Andrew Robinson, an unforgettable screen villain in DIRTY HARRY, is neatly cast, transforming from ineffectual father figure (who ironically hates the sight of blood) to loathsome villain when the story’s reanimated black arts-dabbling sleazeball Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) takes his skin. Claire Higgins is an astonishingly cold and striking presence as a modern-day Wicked Stepmother, luring lonely sad sacks home in order to bludgeon them to death with a hammer and feed them to her skinless ex-lover – scenes that are simultaneously brutal and morbidly funny. The busy second half is full of almost incidental horrors – rats impaled on nails, half-eaten bodies everywhere – though the whole film feels drenched in death and decay, ensuring that the iconic Cenobites are just one startling part of the morbid ambience. With Pinhead – referred to only as “Lead Cenobite” – and the other Cenobites limited to the bare minimum of screen time, Barker’s judicious use of their terrifying presence is among the genre’s finest examples of Less Is More. Ashley Laurence is a ballsy heroine who takes no shit from anyone, including other-worldly demons, though her performance veers on abrasive, a factor heightened in HELLBOUND.
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II **** UK 1988 Dir: Tony Randel.An evidently rushed sequel, HELLBOUND recovers from an awkward first half hour that spends a long time reminding us what happened in HELLRAISER, with the script picking up right where that film left off before segueing into a condensed rehash of Barker’s “all we need is skin” plot, this time with a resurrected Julia as the fleshless monster in need of victims. William Hope is almost fatally terrible as a young doctor who says things like “She was horrible! She had no skin!” but the movie survives his naff role. Kenneth Cranham is wonderfully fiendish as Dr Channard, whose sacrifice of a mental patient revives Julia (Claire Higgins relishing the chance to transform from Wicked Stepmother to “Evil Queen”) from her blood-soaked mattress, though Peter Atkins’ script gives him a rather absurd monster guise and dialogue consisting entirely of Freddy-esque doctor-based puns. Imogen Boorman haunts as the mostly mute blonde orphan venturing into Hell’s matte-painted labyrinth to do battle with the Channard Cenobite, and there’s more back-story for the returning Cenobites. Returning heroine Laurence is one-note this time, and it’s far less disciplined than its predecessor, but the set design is impressive on a low budget, and startling images abound : skinless Julia in a white suit embracing Channard is the stuff on late 80’s horror mag legend. For a long time, the UK release was heavily neutered, but the unrated version contains one of the most gruesome scenes of 80’s horror, as Channard’s patient is given free reign to hack at the imaginary maggots he envisions crawling all over his body. HELLBOUND is also lent huge production value by one of the genre’s greatest scores: Christopher Young’s music, adapting themes from his original score and crafting suitably hellish new cues, is epic and terrifying.
HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH **** USA 1992 Dir: Anthony Hickox.
Returning screenwriter Peter Atkins opened up the HELLRAISER franchise with a movie that consciously, and permanently, shifted the series to America (after the odd Anglo-American feel of the first two British-made films), ditched all the original Cenobites except for series poster boy Pinhead (now promoted to Freddy-style star status) and, aside from fleeting references to the Channard Institute and a micro-cameo from Ashley Laurence in video footage, is happy to forget about the preceding movies. Kevin Bernhardt is the obligatory mean bastard, a nightclub owner who buys the pillar from HELLBOUND and unwittingly revives Pinhead. Once Pinhead is loose, Doug Bradley, a brief but potent presence in the first two films, relishes his chance to be at the centre of a series of spectacular carnage set pieces. Despite the addition of some rather silly new Cenobites (CD Man is a low point of the series), it’s Pinhead’s show. The articulate, oddly charming yet always sneeringly unpleasant monster merrily instigates a nightclub massacre and the desecration of a church, during which he persuasively adopts a mock-Christ-pose and declares “I am the way…” before the building explodes around him. Part 3, in another nod to the ELM STREET series’ evolution, fleshes out Pinhead’s backstory, depicting his pre-demon life as a WWI veteran and letting this earlier incarnation fight it out with the acupunctured demon at the lively final stretch. It’s fast paced, slick and has two hot female leads for the price of one (Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall), alongside a wave of first-rate gore FX, though it understandably earned the ire of Barker fans who saw the writer’s genuinely disturbing creations warped into crass, commercialised, wisecracking panto villains.
HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE *** USA 1996 Dir: Alan Smithee.
Like many movies made under Miramax’s genre offshoot Dimension Films, the fourth HELLRAISER picture had a traumatic production history that saw original director Kevin Yagher superceded by HALLOWEEN 6’s Joe Chappelle before both hid under the pseudonym Alan Smithee on the final version. The final movie in the series to enjoy a theatrical release (in the U.S., at least), it is also the last of the franchise scripted by Peter Atkins. Although largely despised upon its release, even by fans, it at least strives to keep the series ambitious and fresh, taking an anthology format and presenting three linked stories from vastly different time periods. On a space station in the year 2127, apparently insane doctor Bruce Ramsay relates the stories of his ancestors and how the infamous puzzle box ruled their lives, starting with the box’s creation in 1784 France by a well-intentioned toymaker, and continuing with the story of a modern New York architect whose puzzle box-influenced creations threaten his family. Although narratively a mess, with a muddled, abrupt finale reflecting the film’s tortured evolution, BLOODLINE is handsomely mounted on a modest budget and continues the series trend for evocative original scores thanks to Daniel Licht’s underrated music. The gory set pieces are staged with élan, and Doug Bradley’s commanding presence, delayed for maximum effect until the 1996 segment, is still hugely compelling despite plenty of borderline-corny lines (“I AM pain!”). Valentina Vargas makes an alluring impression as a voluptuous servant girl lured to the dark side during the Paris segment.
HELLRAISER: INFERNO ** USA 2000 Dir: Scott Derrickson.
The first of the straight-to-DVD HELLRAISERS takes the bold franchise move of side-lining poster-boy Pinhead to cameo-status and focusing on one character’s personal hell via a combination of serial killer thriller and ELM STREET-infused hallucinatory psychological horror. Director Derrickson, who hit big in the mainstream later with THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and SINISTER, downplays physical horror in favour of a slow, sombre post-SE7EN story of private demons. This, and the next two sequels play like extended episodes of a never-realised TV HELLRAISER anthology series akin to FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, based around the notion of the Cenobites as physical manifestations of the personal hells of Earth’s tortured souls. Corrupt cop Craig Sheffer, who sleeps with hookers and steals crime scene evidence, gets embroiled in a case involving ritualistic murders of people he knows personally. Toiling with a puzzle box found at the first murder scene, he is plunged into an escalating nightmare in which reality and the past blur with visions of faceless demons (incorporating vaguely sketched, briefly seen new variations of past Cenobites). Intended as an ANGEL HEART-esque depiction of Sheffer’s descent into Hell, with Pinhead acting as more of a moral guide to this lost soul than an instigator of chaos, INFERNO suffers from a wooden central performance and often feels like a misfired JACOB’S LADDER rip-off. When Pinhead finally appears at the very end, he seems peculiarly out of place, and the final reel collapses in on itself thanks to at least three groan-inducing endings, lazily justified by the film-long meshing of reality with Hellbound fantasy.
HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER *** USA 2003 Dir: Rick Bota.
As with INFERNO, the sixth movie reduces Pinhead to the host-like character Freddy was in the FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES series, while the TV-style format involves another character’s descent into Hell for their sins. HELLSEEKER also follows INFERNO’s venture into JACOB’S LADDER-influenced mindfuck territory, but does it with much more verve. Ashley Laurence returns to the franchise, now married to deeply flawed Dean Winters; when the two of them have a near-fatal car crash in the very first scene, the amnesiac Winters strives to piece together his earlier life, suffering an assortment of hellish suggestions about his infidelities and a failed plan to kill Kirsty to claim her inheritance. Arriving in the same period as movies like IDENTITY and DONNIE DARKO, this film’s fractured, surreal narrative explained by a climactic revelation was already overly familiar by 2003, but director Bota has a sharp eye for creepy / icky individual scenes. Highlights include graphic brain surgery without anaesthetic, a portentous ride on the night bus home, and a stand-out trip around the police station from Hell. Bradley appears briefly throughout before popping up with a climactic explanatory monologue, while the two new unremarkable Cenobites, referred to in the credits as “Bound Cenobite” and “Stitch Cenobite” don’t register too strongly. Still, it’s well made, the final twist is genuinely surprising and there are still frissons to be had from watching unsympathetic characters cop a face full of hooks.
HELLRAISER: DEADER *** USA 2003 Dir: Rick Bota.
Shot back to back with the next instalment, DEADER reflected a recurring Dimension Films trend of keeping its genre movies shelved for at least a couple of years even if (as is the case here), the quality is higher than you would expect from a seventh entry in any franchise. Echoing the previous two episodes, it features on a doomed protagonist investigating something that directly connects them to the Cenobites, with Pinhead’s appearances limited to dream cameo and climactic monologue status. Produced by Stan Winston, DEADER has an excellent turn from Kari Whurer as a sexy, ball-busting reporter for a scandal-sheet newspaper assigned to explore the Bucharest-based (“Because Amsterdam is so 90’s!”) thrill-seeker cult of the “Deaders”, who can apparently bring people back from the dead using the infamous puzzle box. By entering their world, Whurer gets dragged into Pinhead’s hellish domain. The borrowings from JACOB’S LADDER were at this point getting stale, but director Bota – who restrains the overt gore until the finale – has a sharp eye for sinister imagery and suspense: Whurer’s encounter with a corpse in a dingy bathroom and a grim sequence in which she wakes up with a knife embedded in her back are both effectively uneasy set pieces. As with INFERNO and HELLSEEKER, it bears all the hallmarks of a pre-written mind-fuck horror flick that had Pinhead shoe-horned in to fit the franchise, but it’s efficient, compelling and perfectly serviceable.
HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD ** USA 2003 Dir: Rick Bota.
Bota’s third and final HELLRAISER sequel breaks from the mind-fuck structure of following a single protagonist’s descent into Hell that was the core of all three previous entries, and instead follows the one-by-one slaughter of dumb young folks in the conventional slasher movie fashion. It is also notable for being the first self-referential HELLRAISER film, with the series belatedly succumbing to the post-SCREAM trend for post-modernist horror – unfolding in a world in which (thanks to the website of the title) the characters know all about the “fictional” Cenobite universe, and come bedecked with themed merchandise – Cenobite masks, Pinhead T-shirts, etc. Their dialogue reflects their SCREAM forebears, knowingly saying things like “Get your mythology right- first you open the box, then Pinhead appears, hooks and chains…” and they are referred to as the “Hellraiser Geek Brigade”. Even central villain Lance Henriksen scares someone and smugly chuckles “It’s like being in a horror movie, isn’t it?” These “Hellworld”-devotees attend a “Hellworld” party hosted by Henriksen, complete with giant spinning puzzle boxes and naked girls; Henriksen keeps a “Hellraiser Museum” and both he and the fleetingly seen Pinhead (Doug Bradley’s final appearance in the role) figure in a series of grisly butcherings that anyone going to a party at 86 Hellbound Drive deserves. Bradley is wholly wasted here, his tiny screen time and silly one-liners clearly contrived to ensure his marketable visage on the DVD sleeve, and the climactic GHOST SHIP-inspired CG dismemberment of Henriksen reinforces that returning series practical FX man Gary J Tunnicliffe’s on-set gore is far preferable, but it’s briskly paced and has at least one show-stopping death: a girl tied to the world’s most sadistic chair. Aside from Bradley’s worst ever sub-Freddy dialogue, the most obnoxious element is the endless close-ups of Nokia phones.
HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS *** USA 2011 Dir:Victor Garcia.
Directed by DVD horror sequel veteran Victor Garcia (RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, MIRRORS 2) and written by long-term HELLRAISER sequel FX man Gary J Tunnicliffe, this belated addition to Dimension’s franchise was famously made on the cheap so the studio could retain the rights to the property with an eye on a remake that hasn’t yet happened. Tunnicliffe is clearly a fan of the series’ origins, to the extent that parts of it play like a remake of HELLRAISER anyway: the core plot is a gender reversal of Julia’s rampage as the film’s protagonist lures hookers back to his pad so they can be sacrificed and help restore his skinless chum. The visuals, narrative and iconography all echo Clive Barker’s original movie : skinless men on bloody mattresses, hooks embedded in faces, adultery and more rough sex than you’d normally get in an American horror picture – including a hooker bludgeoned to death during intercourse to feed the Frank-like character. An unpromising found-footage opening stretch sets up the disastrous Tijuana trip endured by a pair of obnoxious twentysomethings; one of them survives to return home, and his family realise he’s brought back more than just a mysterious puzzle box to their plush luxury pad. Not the abomination denounced by, REVELATIONS is livelier than most of the latter HELLRAISER sequels, helped by a healthy graphic gore count, stronger than usual sexual content and a very brief running time. Sadly, the HELLRAISER sequel to afford Pinhead the most screen time since BLOODLINE is the one in which Doug Bradley’s eloquence has been replaced by Stephan Smith Collins’ embarrassingly camp bastardisation of the character, a performance reminiscent of a You Tube fan tribute awkwardly cut into a real HELLRAISER movie. If you can get past his naff portrayal, REVELATIONS has a neat core idea – that of rich white kids so keen to escape their stiflingly dull, pampered existence that a flesh-ripping demon cult is still preferable to staying at home. And the movie has a seedy, nasty edge closer to the Barker original than any other sequel: note the queasy incest interlude between the hot young heroine and her returned brother, and the off-camera killing of a baby.
HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT * USA / UK 2018 Dir: Gary J Tunnicliffe. 81 mins
British make-up effects artist Gary J Tunnicliffe has worked on the HELLRAISER franchise since BLOODLINE, so his graduation to the director’s chair for JUDGMENT feels appropriate – as does affording himself the key role of the mild-mannered, insidious “Auditor”. A shame the movie is a turgid, ugly low point for the series – and another ropey old SAW / SE7EN rip-off occasionally gate-crashed by lame Cenobites. After a SE7EN-styled title sequence, a paedophile is invited to the ominous Ludovico Place for an interrogation with the Auditor (“Jesus Christ!” / “Same city, completely different zip code”) before being referred to the obese Assessor, who binges and purges on the paperwork. Should the Assessor choke on the individual’s assessment, the unfortunate sap gets referred to Pinhead (Paul T Taylor) while three topless, buxom women get showered in their blood. Meanwhile, two dull sibling detectives (Damon Carney, Randy Wayne) are joined by a miscast Alexandra Harris in search of “The Preceptor”, a mystery killer using the Ten Commandments to off deserving victims, including a lawyer whose tongue was cut out and force fed to his own son- complete with John Doe-esque crime scene message “Thou shalt not lie”. This variant on HELLRAISER: INFERNO has a scene in which a live dog is stitched into a victim’s womb but is otherwise woefully light on inventive gore given the man at the helm. An awkward restaging of the unforgettable “Jesus Wept” money shot from the original sits alongside lazy quotes from earlier HELLRAISER movies, while PTSD backstories and a thankless one-scene cameo from Heather Langenkamp (as an angry landlady) just bog things down. Taylor does his best as Pinhead, but his appearances are as arbitrary as the misanthropic dialogue is laughable (“A plague of smart phone junkies…I loathe the modern world”). The ultimate reveal of the true puppet master behind all of this is the nadir of all the belated cash-cow Dimension Films sequels to once-popular genre properties.
Reviews by Steven West