Halloween may been a distant memory for most of you, but not for me! While Andrew was tackling the Halloween franchise, I was re-subjecting myself to another long-running horror franchise: Hellraiser. Hellraiser is a series I both loved for many years and tried, mostly in vain, to defend to my roommate, friend and co-contributor Danny Reid. Last year I sat down with him and watched nearly all nine installments. I had planned on doing a retrospective on each film last year in time for Halloween, but time and life intervened. Well, here I am a year later with another chance, and better late than never, right? But enough babbling, let's open this box!
Horror writer Clive Barker's 1987 directorial debut, Hellraiser is a story about the depths of depravity that some people will go to for a good lay. Julia (Claire Higgins) and Larry (Andrew Robinson) move into Larrys' neglected family home to try to rekindle their marriage, but all Julia can think about is Larry's estranged brother, Frank (Sean Chapman/ Oliver Smith). Unfortunately, Frank got sucked into a hell-dimension and now he needs Julia to sacrifice businessmen to him so that he can come back into our reality and have sex with her. It's up to Larry's daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), to figure out a way to stop Frank and Julia, save her father, and avoid the machinations of the extra-dimensional evil Frank has summoned.
What I like most about Hellraiser, and what nearly every other entry in the series seems to get wrong, is that the focus is on the evil that people do through their desires and ambitions. It reminds me very much of David Lynch's work, in particular Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. The series most iconic characters, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his cenobite minions, aren't even given proper names in this film. In fact, I'm pretty sure the name “Pinhead” was an invention of the film's fans who needed to give the character a name other than “Lead Cenobite.” The cenobites in this film are less characters and more forces of nature: A perverse combination of both order and chaos, desire and consequence.
- The Good: Atmospheric. It's rarely a “jump scare” kind of film, but rather the slow creeping horror that gets under your skin and doesn't really hit you until it's dark out, you're all alone and were those church bells you just heard? And a baby crying?
- The Bad: The Engineer (the crawling puppet thing) could have looked better and have had a clearer purpose. The story stutters in place, and at times it seems like Barker is conflicted if he wants to make a more abstract, artistic horror film (ala Argento or Lynch) or a more standard slasher-esque flick.
- Level of Suffering: It takes place in the 80s, so I'm sure everyone's hair suffered quite a bit from all the teasing.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Having survived both her murderous relatives and the inhuman cenobites, Kirsty finds herself in mental hospital of one Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham). There she spends roughly 30 minute explaining the plot of the first film to Dr. Channard who, after hearing about a box that summons demons to rip off your skin, decides that this “hell box” thing sounds like something he'd really like to have! So he conscripts Kirsty's step-mother, Julia, to show him how the whole thing works and, well, it really goes to his head, you could say. Meanwhile, Kirsty learns that Pinhead may not have always had such an unfortunate complexion and attempts to use this information to once again escape from an eternity of torture at his hands, er, hooks.
Hellbound is a film that I keep going back and forth on. On one hand, the story lags. It takes almost an hour to really get going. I can understand them wanting to establish the events of the original for people who might not have seen it, but they really do establish the hell out of it. The acting is also really hit or miss, even more so than the original.
But what I really enjoy about Hellboud in it's vision of hell as an unending, gray labyrinth lorded over by Leviathan. Leviathan's purpose and intentions are never fully explained, but rather left open with an ambiguous dread. Nothing about hell is set down in stone; no rules are laid down and what we don't learn makes what little we do know all the more chilling. The makers of Hellbound could have gone with a generic "fire and brimstone" approach to hell, or perhaps just mirrored the "abandoned house" motif used in the original film, but instead they created a bleak, alien landscape as emotionless and incomprehensible as the cenobites that inhabit it.
And while I came to regret this idea in later films, I like how the cenobites are (spoiler) revealed to be humans who have been transformed by the Leviathan into quasi-vampires. It works well with the idea of losing and gaining your humanity that is the focus of the better entries of the Hellraiser series, and it definitely works here.
- The Good: World-building. The structure of hell is unique and interesting.
- The Bad: The story takes a while to go anywhere, and when it finally does get going, it's not all that great. There are only, like, two different hallway sets used to give the impression of a labyrinth. Imogen Boorman cannot fake run. At all.
- Level of Suffering: Dr. Channard's puns approach “Arnold as Mr. Freeze” levels of awfulness.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
Well, nothing good lasts forever, and thus we have Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Degenerate club owner J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt) likes two things: sexing ladies and buying weird art for his S&M club/heavy metal bar/ 5 star restaurant (no, really, it's somehow all these things). So when he finds a mysterious pillar with a certain pin-headed cenobite's face on it, he's just got to have it. Bonus when it comes to life and starts demanding sacrifices. Meanwhile, up-and-coming reporter Joey (a pre-DS9 Terry Farrell) is trying to catch a break when she starts getting mysterious visions of a man who looks like Pinhead without all those pins. He tells her that Pinhead's true plan all along has been world domination and that she is the only one who can stop a literal hell on Earth.
Remember how Pinhead was just sort of this twisted force of nature that punished people who sought him out? Sorry! Turns out he just works for the biblical devil and what he really wants is to take over the Earth. Also, he sort of acts like Freddy Krueger's low-key brother; taking opportunities to monologue and showboat, albeit with fewer puns and jokes. Oh, and he takes about five minutes out of chasing our heroine to mock a priest and defile a church with his DEMON POWERS.
In addition to the ability to summon chains from Limbo at will, Hellraiser 3 also grants Pinhead the ability to transform average people into leather-clad monstrosities that...sort of cavort about and menacingly burn people with cigarettes (seriously). Fans have dubbed these characters the "pseudo-cenobites." These include CD the DJ, who throws razor-sharp compact discs and Camerahead who, much like his name implies, has a really bitchin' mustache. Coupled with retconning Pinhead to just a simple agent of Satan, it really showcases the film's lack of imagination.
- The Good: Well, it's probably the funniest entry in the series, so that's got to count for something. The scene where a patient covered in cenobite chains is rushed into an ER and explodes and no one think this is strange or unusual except for Terry Farrell's character is particularly good.
- The Bad: The “pseudo-cenobites" and Pinhead's transformation from a aloof, threatening presence into kind of a prick.
- Level of Suffering: “That's a rap!”
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)
And so it's come to this. To be fair, this is the only entry in the series I haven't recently re-watched. Can't Stop the Movies founder Danny Reid and another friend of ours started watching it while I was out running an errand and I only caught the last third or so by the time I got back. They said it was so that I could conserve my energy for what would come next. I knew they were right: I would need it.
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, last of the Hellraiser series to be released theatrically, tells three interwoven stories that span from 18th Century France to the year 2127 and tell the tale of the L'Merchant family. “Who are they and why should I care,” you may be asking? Oh, well it turns out they've been retconned in as the creators of the puzzle box that summons Pinhead and his crew, adding a completely unnecessary level of complexity to the Hellraiser mythos that, for some strange reason, fans can't seem to let go of.
Best as I or Danny remember, the first story follows Phillip L'Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) as a french toy maker propositioned to create a puzzle box for a wealthy land owner. Turns out the land owner's true purpose is to use said box to summon the devil (shock, disbelief). Things go bad, as most demon summonings do, and out pops the evil Angelique (Valentina Vargas): a demon who plans to seduce Phillip and take over the world in a plot that I can't quite remember but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't make much sense even if I could. Spoiler: It don't work. Phillip dies and his sins pass to his children and to his children's children.
A few hundred years later, we find ourselves in the (*shudder*) 90's with Phillip's descendant John Merchant (Bruce Ramsay in a shocking double roll), an architect who has build the puzzle box-styled skyscraper from the ending of Hellraiser III. Turns out the demon Angelique is still around and she's still stalking the Merchant family. Why? Well, it seems that if a puzzle box can open a portal to hell, a skyscraper built like a puzzle box can open an, um, skyscraper-sized portal to hell. Which is important because it's not like Pinhead can just open a portal to hell on his own or anything. I mean, it's not like that was the exact plot of the previous film in the series or anything.
Anyway, as you might expect, things don't work in hell's favor, and we shoot forward to the year 2127. Now we're in space, because that's just what we did in the 90s, okay?! Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Fucking Ramsay in an astonishing third role!) has developed a way to stop Pinhead once and for all using, uh, lasers or light or something? I don't know, the plot gets really convoluted around this point, and since they spent their budget on the period cloths and wigs, the special effects take a real hit, too.
Bloodlines takes a lot of it's cues from Hell on Earth: Pinhead is still pursuing his crusade of world domination for reasons that are never quite clear. What made Hellraisers 1 and 2 so good is that the focus was on the human character and the evil they did. Making Pinhead into the villain of the series took away what made the earlier films so imaginative and it turned Pinhead from a monster into a joke. In all honesty, the series should have died along with this film.
- The Good: At least Hellraiser abides by 1990s horror conventions and sets the film at least partially in space. Angelique's cenobite form is probably one of the last decent looking original cenobites in the series. Also, bonus guest appearance from Adam Scott!
- The Bad: The story of the Merchant family isn't compelling or interesting. The individual tales themselves have no depth or substance and are little more than vehicles for more tits and blood.
- Level of Suffering: Quite possible the worst dialog this side of a Hellraiser meets Harry Potter fanfic.
Okay, that's just about all the hell I can raise for one day. Check back next time when I'll tackle the second half of the Hellraiser franchise. And be warned, it's mostly downhill from here.