The Hellraiser franchise

Hellraiser (1987)

Rating: B

Dir: Clive Barker
Star: Clare Higgins, Ashley Lawrence, Andrew Robinson, Sean Chapman

Wow. Doesn’t seem like 22 years ago that this came out, but September 1987 it was. Barker’s still retains much of its ability to shock, though some of the most horrific imagery it contains is probably the eighties hairstyles. But there is a genuine sense of depravity, and in Pinhead, we have one of the most memorable creations in the genre’s history. If the film has a weakness, it’s likely the story, which doesn’t make much sense. Larry (Robinson) and Julia (Higgins) move in to his old family home; an accident causes his blood to spill in the attic, partially resurrecting his brother, and her former lover, Frank (Sean), from where he has been trapped.

More blood – from victims supplied by Julia – bring him almost to normality. However, daughter Kirsty (Laurence) finds out what’s going on and, through solving the Lament Configuration puzzle-box, draws the attention of the demonic Cenobites. To escape, she offers them Frank: however, bargaining with such creatures is not exactly recommended.

Watching the movie does give you some idea why Stephen King chose to say, “I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker,” even if Barker’s subsequent work largely made the statement a false prophecy of monumental proportions, Two aspects that work really well are Bob Keen’s excellent physical effects and Higgins’ performance. The former has a gloopy presence that CGI, even now, can not hope to match, especially when skinless Frank comes back to life. And Higgins is a far better actress than is usually found in this kind of thing; she has a steely maturity that makes you wonder why horror films spend so much time on teenagers.

While it could be seen as the fore-runner of the ‘torture porn’ that has now become more prevalent than most would like, the difference is that this has a brain in its head. Even if the digital effects now certainly look ropey, you still get the feeling this is just one tiny corner of a world that’s utterly different from the one we know, and that’s definitely for the best.

Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988)

Rating: B-

Dir: Tony Randel
Star: Ashley Lawrence, Kenneth Cranham, Clare Higgins, Imogen Boorman

Has it really been more than 20 years? Guess so: this originally came out in 1988, and you can see below what I thought of it at the time (with enough plot that I won’t bother trying to rehash it here). with a bit more distance and clarity, it now seems all over the place. You can tell it was rushed into production, and seems to have been made up as they went along – it doesn’t so much possess a plot arc as a series of plot pick-up sticks. The focus is Kirsty. No, it’s Julia. Now it’s Tiffany. Wait, it’s Dr. Channard. Ah, sod it – let’s tear some heads off! Kirsty (Laurence) is perhaps the weakest link in the film, especially when trying to stand alongside solid, if slumming, classical British actors like Cranham and Higgins. They manage to take material that is often nothing more than exploitational [and I say that without any judgmental tone] or complete nonsense, and deliver it with more weight than they possess, such as Julia snarling venomously at Kirsty, “Take your best shot, Snow White!”

The rest of it is much as I remember. The film grinds in tedious low-gear to begin with, starts to accelerate when Julia is resurrected from a blood-soaked mattress, and hits full speed once the pain party shifts to hell. Really, for a six-million dollar budget, it’s one of the best depictions of the underworld ever, a sprawling, Escher-esque labyrinth of torments, overseen by the “WTF is that?” Leviathan. If the script’s grip on proceedings basically evaporates at this point, it’s probably for the best: the original never exactly portrayed Kirsty as being all that willing to go to hell – literally – for her father, and her efforts are derailed as soon as she meets Frank, happily believing his statement that her father is in another hell [I can’t help thinking of Super Mario Bros there]. The battle in which Channard-bite takes on Pinhead and his cronies is embarrassingly brief, but the film still succeed, perhaps because of its flaws, which may help enhance the nightmarish sensibilities on view.

PS. Yes, I know it’s really called Hellbound: Hellraiser II. But calling it that would totally fuck up the ordering in our A-Z, where I want to keep the franchise entries together. Sue me.

Original review: [TC 0] It is not easy to produce a good, “true” horror film. Too many directors nowadays rely on killing an endless series of teenagers (no matter however imaginatively it may be done) or lightening the tone of the film with humour as in Reanimator – not that this means the film is necessarily bad, of course, but it’s difficult to be truly scared when you’re laughing or playing “Spot the Next Victim”. Hellraiser was a rare exception, so not surprisingly the news that a sequel was planned was both good and bad news – given that the original was a huge leap ahead of anything else in the field, would they be able to maintain the standard, or even improve? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘No’. In some ways, it is better than the original, but overall, it is less frightening and is not a truly worthy successor.

The plot concerns Kirsty, the survivor of the first film. She wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, to find, not surprisingly, that no-one believes her story about pin-heads, peeled men and her step-mother claw-hammering people to death. No-one, that is, except for Dr. Channard, who runs the hospital. He has a nice collection of Lament Configuration puzzle boxes so when he hears about the mattress that Julia died on, he has it brought round to his house and ‘borrows’ an inmate from the hospital. This poor person is given a razor blade to play with, and the predictable result follows: Julia returns, minus her skin, and a few more residents of the asylum are slaughtered to provide her with a new one. Channard then gets Tiffany, a girl obsessed by puzzles to solve one of his Lament Configurations, and the gateway to Hell is opened. Meanwhile, Kirsty has seen an apparition of her father pleading for help; along with Dr. Channard, she also makes the descent into Hell, but to seek him…

Nice story – so what went wrong between the idea and the screen? It’s the dialogue that’s mostly responsible; it varies between sounding ridiculous and banal, causing the audience at the showing I saw to giggle now & then. The acting didn’t help either. Ashley Lawrence never struck me in the first film as being a great actress, and she hasn’t improved much since then. She isn’t the worst on view – that honour goes to Dr. Channard’s assistant (let’s not mention his name, it’d only embarrass him), who succeeds in being totally unconvincing. Fortunately, he is killed mid-way through the film, sparing us further agony. The only person to come out with any credit is Imogen Boorman, who plays Tiffany, but she has the benefit of being nearly mute, and so avoids the worst excesses of the dialogue.

What rescues the film is the stunning visual side. Hell looks like a huge painting by M.C. Escher, full of endless corridors, archways and bottomless pits. The special effects are absolutely superb – Bob Keen and his team have produced an endless series of magical creations, the most remarkable of which is a new addition to the Cenobite ranks. Nowhere are the effects anywhere less than perfect, from the smallest trickle of blood to the giant Lament Configuration, Leviathan. There are many images to treasure and scenes that will stick in the mind, though how many will escape the censor is yet to be seen – the film has been submitted four times in the States and has been given an ‘X’ certificate, normally reserved for hard-core pornography, four times. How it will fare in Britain, where violence is frowned upon even more, doesn’t bear thinking about.

On balance, the set design, effects and make up just about save the film, and make it into something worth going to see. I hope that the film is a success, if only so that Clive Barker can be asked to return for Hell on Earth: Hellraiser III and we can see what his dark imagination can produce when given the opportunity and the budget. Mind you, I wasn’t that impressed with Hellraiser the first time I saw it, so I’m more than willing to suspend judgement for a little while!

[2] As promised, a re-review of this one, and a report on how it’s done at the BBFC. I stand by most of what I said in TC0; it is nowhere near as good as “Hellraiser”, the dialogue is rotten, as is most of the acting and the story line is weak involving a lot of running about. The hell scenes are impressive, on the other hand and the FX are astonishing – if the original wasn’t one of my favourite films, this would be quite tolerable. As for the cuts, scratch almost the entire mattress sequence, reduced to about three shots from around 90 seconds, both Pinhead and Channard’s cenobitization are cut, as is the scene where the Channard slaughters his ex-patients and the one where he loses his head. None of these, except the first one, struck me as being too blatant and the editing has been done well. Overall, it could have been a whole lot worse… [In 2004, when re-submitted by Anchor Bay, it was passed without cuts.]

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992)

Rating: C-

Dir: Anthony Hickox
Star: Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall, Doug Bradley, Kevin Bernhardt

I recall hating this when I first saw it. Now, not so much, though it would still be a huge stretch to call it good. The movie abandons any pretensions at a non-American setting, moving wholeheartedly to New York, where nightclub owner JP Monroe (Bernhardt) has picked up an interesting pillar for his apartment. When his blood is spilled on it, that awakens Pinhead (Bradley) from his imprisonment within, and he entices JP into getting enough victims for Pinhead to break out into the mortal world. Meanwhile, TV journalist Joey Summerskill (Farrell) is investigating the club, after seeing a guy torn apart by chains at a local hospital – turns out he’d half-inched the Lament Configuration. Her dreams are visited by Pinhead, or at least his pre-Cenobite human form, who enlists her help to make sure the pointy one is not allowed to ramble among us. Pinhead replaces his stock of henchmen, mostly from the bar-crowd, and battle is joined.

The shift in focus from the humans to Pinhead is understandable, particularly since none of the former are written as to be likeable or even particularly interesting. While Bradley delivers a nice double-turn, playing both the villain and the closest thing the film has to a hero – I particularly liked his blasphemous humour – the “new” Cenobites he creates are… Well, a bit crap, to be honest. I mean, a guy with CDs stuck in his face? Not quite the new face of horror, really. The other main problem is, it is painfully obvious how this is going to end: Kirsty Joey fiddling with the box, before she finally figures out how to open it, just in time to send Pinhead back to hell. It barely passed muster once as a finale, and twice was pushing it; the third time is definitely not the charm. Even the effects are less impressive here than previously, a combination of a sharply-reduced budget and an apparent lack of imagination. Having Pinhead and his cronies stalking the streets of New York may have made sense at the time, perhaps, but the execution leaves a good bit to be desired.

Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)

Rating: C+

Dir: “Alan Smithee” [Kevin Yagher and Joe Chappelle]
Star: Bruce Ramsay, Valentina Vargas, Doug Bradley, Christine Harnos

Known, fairly disparagingly, as “Pinhead in Space,” this isn’t quite as bad as you might think from that. Yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, trying to throw together three stories from disparate eras, past, present and future, but you can see what it’s trying to do: create a mythology which spans the centuries. It centres on Paul Merchant (Ramsay, who also plays his ancestors), who has built a space-station in the year 2127, with the aim of… Well, let’s get to that. As his robot solves the Lament Configuration, the station is raided by soldiers under the unfortunately-named Rimmer (Harnos), who arrests Merchant. He tells her the story of what he’s trying to accomplish, and how it dates back 400 years, to when French toymaker Philip L’Merchant made the first hellish puzzle-box, from a pattern provided by a French noble.

Two centuries later, John Merchant is an architect in New York, and to cut a long story short, more Cenobiting ensues there, with Pinhead wanting to open a permanent gateway between Hell and our world. Now, a third generation of Merchants is ready to confront Pinhead. Hopefully, this battle will go a bit better than the first two, but first, he has to convince Rimmer he’s not insane. The fact that Pinhead and his crew are slicing and dicing the rest of the troop does help in this area.

There are large chunks of this that don’t make much sense [how, exactly, does Merchant get to build a space station to his own, highly-illogical design?), but the Hellraiser series has never really been about logic, as much as generating a nightmarish universe where a lot of really bad shit happens. The film isn’t bad at that, though they would probably have been better to concentrate on one story – it seems to imply confidence in its script that it needs to throw multiple threads at the viewer. “What, don’t like this one? Well, there’ll be another along in a moment.” The depiction of pre-revolutionary France is hardly convincing, though a sense of location has never been important either.

Ramsay is functional in his multiple roles; Vargas does make quite a good impact as Cenobite Angelique, and of course, Bradley is good value as ever, spitting out complete bollocks like, “Ahaha! Oh, you suffer beautifully. But I am here for business, not pleasure,” and giving them a resonance that’s poetic beyond their actual merits. The net results, a last hurrah both theatrically and for any involvement from Clive Barker, are something of a step up from the largely-dire third installment, though we’re still a long way from the delights of the first couple.

Hellraiser: Inferno

Rating: D

Dir: Scott Derrickson
Star: Craig Sheffer, Nicholas Turturro, James Remar, Doug Bradley

Detective Joseph Thorne (Sheffer) is a ‘bad lieutenant’ cop working the Denver streets, who falls into a very strange world after investigating the murder of a high-school classmate, found torn to shreds with the Lament Configuration box sitting nearby. No sooner has Thorne started fiddling with it, then he finds himself seeking a mysterious underworld figure called The Engineer, who appears to be behind a spate of dead bodies that are turning up, accompanied by a child’s severed finger, apparently removed from a living victim. The closer he gets to the Engineer, the closer the victims get to Thorne. Meanwhile, his grip on his own sanity appears to be slipping, worrying his partner (Turturro) and requiring visits to a psychiatrist (Remar). Yes: when you’re getting psychological help from the guy who plays Dexter’s dead father, it’s never likely to end well.

There’s rumblings that this script was not originally written to be part of the franchise, but a standalone horror film – it had the Cenobites spliced in after the decision was made to make it so. That would certainly explain why Pinhead doesn’t appear for 80 or so minutes: rather than being the main antagonist. he’s somewhere between a puppet-master and the Cryptkeeper, pulling the strings and eventually explaining what it’s all about. Which. to be honest, is little more than a cheat, and it’s understandable why this was the first entry in the series that went straight-to-video.

Sheffer is almost entirely unlikeable – not that the series is exactly populated with heroes, but the likes of Claire Higgins or Kenneth Cranham brought some humanity to their roles. Here, Thorne sleeps with prostitutes, using money lifted from the murder scene, just because he can, it seems. That kind of behaviour means, when the flesh hooks start to fly, your reaction is less one of horror, than justice being served. Overall, if this had not been an entry in the series, it would likely have been better. But sticking the word Hellraiser on the cover comes with certain expectations, which this is almost entirely not equipped to meet.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) – to be reviewed

Hellraiser: Deader (2005) – to be reviewed

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) – to be reviewed

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) – to be reviewed

Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)

Rating: C+

Dir: Gary J. Tunnicliffe
Star:  Damon Carney, Randy Wayne, Alexandra Harris, Gary J. Tunnicliffe

I think I took my bags and checked out of the Cenobite Hotel after the fifth entry; it was hard to see how it could get any worse. Critical opinion regarding the subsequent sequels confirmed the wisdom of the decision – not that titles like Hellraiser: Deader were exactly calling to me. When I stumbled across the latest entry on Netflix while browsing in a low-key way on New Year’s Eve, my first reaction was, “They’re still making these?” It has been seven years since the last installment, after all. Still, in the absence of much else to do, we watched it, as our final movie of 2018. And, to my surprise… It didn’t suck – especially considering we’re now more than thirty years from the original, and this is number #10.

For by the time you reach double-digits in any franchise, makers find themselves in a difficult situation. If you keep going down the same path, you risk being criticized for churning out the same old stuff. But if you change things up, you risk alienating the existing fanbase: after all, if a film has been popular enough to merit nine further entries, it must have something going for it. Though I’m not sure how much that’s true for Hellraiser. It appears these sequels are a way for the current rights owner to keep hold of the property until the long-delayed remake, first announced in 2006, can escape development hell. [I guess Bob Weinstein must have opened a Lament Configuration]

Tunnicliffe has mostly gone the re-invention route, in part no doubt spurred by Doug Bradley turning down the role of Pinhead again. Apparently, this was in response to being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the script, which seems weird on both sides. While Pinhead still has a supporting role (played by another actor_, the main denizen of hell on view here is the Auditor, played by Tunnicliffe himself. It’s a nice concept: the demon as world-weary bureaucrat, shuffling people around to be judged and punished, with the aid of an organic typewriter. For the first time in the series, there’s also an angel, Jophiel. She has an uneasy relationship with Pinhead and his allies, and isn’t exactly angelic, saying things like, “We discovered long ago that in order to control the evil, we had to be the ones implementing it.”

Less interesting or successful is the plot on the human side, which concerns three cops (Carney, Wayne and Harris) tracking down a serial killer in Oklahoma City, who is killing people in line with the Ten Commandments. It’s like Se7en never happened, folks! None of the characters here make any impression, and when the key twist is revealed, it provoked little more than a marginal stirring on our couch. Though let’s face it, this series has increasingly been less interested in the victims than the inhabitants of the netherworld. Maybe that’s where the series needs to go, as it seeks to catch up with Friday the 13th in volume. Abandon Earth entirely, and go full-on into the war between heaven and hell. I’d be down for that. Getting Bradley back would help, too.

Hellraiser (2022)

Rating: C-

Dir: David Bruckner
Star: Odessa A’zion, Drew Starkey, Goran Visnjic, Jamie Clayton

Film: “We have such sights to show you!”
Me: “Ok, bring it on!”
Film: [Rolls credits]
Me: “…”

Yeah, this was disappointing, in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s 121 minutes long, which is far too long for the material it contains. The first 80 minutes are particularly underwhelming, before it does at least somewhat redeem itself. The heroine is Riley (A’zion), a somewhat recovering addict who lives with her brother, and hangs out with her sketchy boyfriend, Trevor (Starkey). In need of cash, she goes along when he suggests breaking into a storage facility, and it’s there she encounters a certain shiny puzzle-box. Playing with it leads to her brother vanishing, and the eventual discovery it belonged to industrialist Voight (Visnjic), who vanished mysteriously six years previously.

Riley, Trevor and their housemates head to his mansion, where they discover the box has various configurations, each of which require a sacrifice; completing them all grants a wish. The film then becomes a slasher pic for a bit, with these highly annoying millennials being hunted round the estate and picked off, while trying to turn the tables on the Cenobites. Voight might not be as vanished as he seemed, and nor might everyone in Riley’s circle necessarily be on the same page. Though if we have learned anything from the ten previous movies in the franchise, it’s that bargaining with Pinhead – here called “The Priest” (Clayton) – and pals is definitely a situation where you need to keep the receipts.

Y’know, I could not care less whether Clayton identifies as male, female or a Cenobite. I just wish they identified as someone with a personality – because going by their delivery of the iconic line with which I started this review, they don’t. Put beside Doug Bradley’s imperious statement – you knew he meant it – Clayton appears to be reading the weather. “We have such sights to show you. Later, scattered showers.” The Priest, and all the others, look the part, no question, though I do miss the grungy, suburban attic feel of the original. They just don’t project anything like the same air of menace. Hell, one of them even runs, surely reason to get your membership of the Cenobite Guild permanently revoked for an unconscionable lack of gravitas.

Admittedly, compared to the dreck which passed for most of the latter sequels especially, this final section at least feels above average and has its moments. What you have to go through to get there: not so much. Both Chris and I were irrationally annoyed by the lead actress: Chris by her mouth (“What is up with her lipstick?”); me by the affectation of the apostrophe in her stage surname. Hey, I said “irrationally”. I mean, while Ashley Laurence wasn’t great in the original couple of films, the presence of Clare Higgins and Kenneth Cranham more than made up for it. Five minutes in the company of Riley and her pals, and you’ll be the one muttering “Jesus wept” under your breath, and pledging for #TeamCenobite.