Growing up, Hellraiser was always the most intriguing of the major horror franchises. Children of the 1990’s will join me in remembering quite well the fear and attraction associated with Pinhead’s visage, sitting temptingly on the shelves of Blockbuster and Easy Video. For kids or young adults just getting into the horror genre and perhaps treading lightly at first, Hellraiser was the one film that was obviously too terrifying to try at first.
But once such trepidation was conquered, Hellraiser offered an experience separate and apart from any other horror movie. It is a powerfully unique corner of the horror flick genre, breaking free of standard slasher fare to fuse supernaturalism, mythology, and body horror into a dreadful innovation. Yet even as it distinguished itself from the major slashers, its structure, iconography and lead character functioned to place Hellraiser shoulder-to-shoulder with big bads like Freddy, Jason, Michael and Chucky. But while all the big horror icons have a dedicated fanbases, only Pinhead seems to have inspired a quasi-religious cult following.
Alas, this irresistibly fascinating series is complicated by the fact that it’s probably the most poorly executed and disappointing major horror franchise one can find. The series has been fraught with such consistent professional ineptitude over the years that creator Clive Barker is often out saying things like this:
“Hello, my friends. I want to put on record that the flic 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.”
Horror fans (myself included) seem to maintain a genuine love for and dedication to these movies – certainly Miramax keeps on churning them out. But in the nearly thirty years since The Hellbound Heart’s original publication, we’ve mostly seen things like artistic compromise, incompetent filmmaking, and nagging disappointment among fans and creators alike.
Hellraiser enjoys the paradoxical status of being the worst best and best worst horror series of all-time. So what is the reason for such an obvious contradiction? Or, more precisely, what is the meaning of it?
To find out, we must take a trip through all nine Hellraiser films. So bust out the kinky leather, rusty chains and bloody meat hooks.
“Some things have to be endured.” – Frank Cotton
In 1987, Clive Barker was an emerging horror writer given a rare opportunity. He’d personally script and direct a film adaptation of his second novel, The Hellbound Heart. The result became a mainstay of contemporary horror cinema and spawned eight sequels, compromising one of the most creative and bizarre long-term horror franchises to date.
But Hellraiser is best considered as an individual film, not merely an origin point for franchise replication. It is a fantastically disturbing story about the primal oppositions that animate the human psyche and the essential powerlessness we experience trying to effectively negotiate them. The story seeks no less than a plumbing of the depths of human subjectivity, and in particular the abyssal human condition we call “desire.”
The film’s antagonist is often mistaken to be the iconic fetish-demon Pinhead; this is a misreading. The story’s true villain is the deeply human pursuit of excess enjoyment, as personified here by hedonist par excellence Frank Cotton. By its very nature, abduction by the Cenobites flows exclusively from a voluntary, though quite uncontrollable, thirst for transcendent human experience –as the film phrases it, to seek a state of “pain and pleasure indivisible.”
The true nightmare of Frank’s experience was not that he did not get what he desired or that he did not ultimately desire what he thought he desired. It is just the opposite: Frank got precisely what he desired. The Cenobites represent the form of desire fulfilled; they are human demand answered at long last.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, there is nothing more terrifying.
Recognizing the violent paradox of human desire breathes intellectual life into the film’s brutal fetishism; indeed the taboo psychological connection between pain and pleasure forms the core of the film’s expressive power. But the script is infected with many other examples of duality and opposition: good brother and bad brother, cuckold and harlot, paternal sovereignty and feminine independence.
Cinematically, Hellrasiser is a remarkably concise and assaultive film; not a single moment is wasted and every shot counts. Such tightness creates an almost unbearably energetic forward momentum, which the viewer processes with a mounting sense of dread. The makeup and special effects are exquisite, and serve to both relieve and perpetuate the film’s many tensions. It is as kinetic, provocative, and nauseating as it was in 1986, and still stands out as one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
“And to think… I hesitated.” –Dr. Channard (post-Cenobite)
Hellbound is where the rubber –or latex, rather –hit the road for the franchise. If the first entry was happy to tease the viewer with the unspeakable atrocities found within the mysterious Lament Configuration, this second chapter sought to blow that box wide open. It picks up right where Hellraiser left off, seamlessly incorporating and amplifying its bloody aesthetic and sexually discomforting tone.
Returning protagonist Kirsty Cotton finds herself stuck in a mental hospital presided over by one Dr. Channard, who just so happens to be a big fan of Cenobite-related stuff. The plot –including Dr. Channard’s revival of Julia, Kirsty’s friendship with an inquisitive young doctor, and a mute girl who’s handily good at puzzles – is contrived for the first half and then completely nonsensical for the second. By the time the characters reach Hell, or whatever we’d like to call the Cenobites’ labyrinthine and Giger-esque stomping grounds, each scene delivers a new and wonderful non sequitur. It’s a blast.
But one aspect of the muddy story mechanics deserves special attention because of its manifest thematic contradiction. The central motivation of the film resides in Dr. Channard, who helps Julia escape the Cenobites’ grasp even as he is actively seeking to submit himself to it. This kind of facially nonsensical human behavior represents the key illogic Barker sought to explore with Hellraiser, and is a big reason why this was such a worthy sequel.
Oh, and also there’s the projectile razorblade hand-snakes. Those are important here, too.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
“There is no good…there is no evil. There is only flesh.” –Pinhead
Amid the chaotic limbo that was New World Entertainment’s bankruptcy, Clive Barker’s preoccupation with filming Nightbreed (1990), and the eventual involvement of Bob Weinstein and Miramax in the franchise, this third chapter emerged to become probably the most popularly derided entry in the series.
The main reason for the backlash is usually understood to be the unforgivable, deal-breaker “pseudo-Cenobites,” which the script itself concedes to be “handmade” and poor imitations of the original Cenobite posse (Female, Chatterer, and Butterball).
Even if you can tolerate the ignominy of a Cenobite DJ that shoots projectile CDs, the bigger problem was with Pinhead himself. In the first two films, the cenobites were effective largely because they were called in so sparingly. Each time the lights dimmed and the walls began to glow it was an exciting and terrifying moment of apprehension.
In this film, Pinhead is given far too much continuous screen time to sustain his essential mysteriousness. The church scenes are a total bore, as watching him engage in such gleeful apostasy for its own sake grows tiresome immediately. Doug Bradley is of course synonymous with the role of Pinhead, but even he struggles to deliver the script’s ridiculous dialogue with any command.
Nonetheless, the movie is of a very distinct time and place for a large segment of its audience, and there’s plenty to enjoy there: the beautiful Terry Farrell (of contemporaneous Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame), the early-90’s metalhead club scene, of course, the immortal theme song by Motorhead, with its Clive Barker-directed music video. We quite literally get to see Lemmy play cards with Pinhead.
All told, it’s not that bad a deal. Even if Hell on Earth represents a certain low point for the franchise, it’s far from the nadir.
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
“Human acquiescence is as easily obtained by terror as by temptation.” –Pinhead
It took nine sequels before Jason made it to outer space, but Pinhead made it in just four. It wasn’t easy. The controversy surrounding Bloodline is that the original creative team never wanted to send Cenobites to space at all. Rather, the film’s futuristic storytelling frame was incorporated in a massive post-hoc rewrite apparently dictated by meddling producers.
The creative differences got so bad that director Kevin Yagher submitted DGA protest pseudonym Alan Smithee rather than have his name attached, and fill-in director Joe Chappelle had to be brought in to wrap the production up. To get a sense of what the film lost, you can check out a decent storyboard version of the nixed material here.
Apocrypha aside, Bloodline holds together surprisingly well on its own terms. In fact, it’s probably the best sequel in the series (other than perhaps Hellbound). The story’s shifting timelines give the Lament Configuration its most convincing sense of historicity yet, expressing the Cenobite mythology with the kind of vast timelessness it always aspired to. The film’s visual components –particularly the costuming, set design, and lighting –are clean and confident beyond anything the franchise has achieved since.
Bloodline also gets its cenobites right, with Doug Bradley reclaiming command of the Pinhead role, and Angelique emerging as one of the most captivating and well-actualized Cenobites in the whole franchise.
Most fascinating is the way Pinhead and Angelique help us go further in exploring the pain-pleasure duality. In Bloodline, Pinhead and Angelique represent the two symbiotic modes of human inducement: terror and temptation. In a sense, all human motivation can be boiled down to these two affects –in psychoanalysis, they’re called “anxiety” and “desire.” It’s a relationship explored throughout the Hellraiser series, and it’s brought into its sharpest focus here.
Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
“I believe in loyalty. Fidelity. I understand the concept…but I live in in a different world.” – Detective Joseph Thorne
With virtually nowhere to go following the calamitous Bloodline experience, Miramax turned to young filmmaker Scott Derrickson to revive the franchise. It’s at this point that the franchise sinks into its divisive “psychological thriller phase.”
Inferno features a hard-boiled detective type named Joe Thorne, who claims to have a real knack for “solving puzzles” (wink!). As he follows a trail of severed fingers toward a mysterious serial killer known as “The Engineer,” he’s periodically harassed by a group of slippery, vulgar cenobites; thus he quickly loses his grip on reality. The story is actually quite well paced, if a bit typical, and functions rather creatively as an attempt at “Hellraiser as film noir.”
But despite the script’s openly pulpy tenor, the film’s visual dimension alternates between C-list TV procedural and softcore porno (sans nudity). This was Derrickson’s feature length debut, and he’d later go on direct the keenly atmospheric Sinister (2012). But here, Derrickson plays the narrative far too straight. The film would really have benefitted from incorporating some of the more German Expressionist underpinnings of traditional film noir.
Notably, Clive Barker himself seems to have hated this movie more than any other sequel, probably due to the film’s ultimately moralistic theme. (Derrickson apparently is a very Christian dude). Meanwhile, fans decried the under-utilization of Pinhead as a key character. But these criticisms are mostly empty. The ending strikes me more as a genre trope than overt preaching, and previous entries obviously suffered from an overexposure of Pinhead. Change can be good.
Judged on its own terms, this is a very decent movie. Inferno reimagined the franchise just as it was hitting a dead end, in the divisive but noteworthy tradition of franchise detours like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985). It’s a noticeably ambitious and fresh interpretation that naysaying fans may want to give another, fairer look.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
“Whenever there is hate, violence, depravity…a door will always be found.” – Merchant/Derelict
After Derrickson gave Pinhead and the wider mythos the shaft, Doug Bradley was delighted to hear the seventh Hellraiser film would feature the return of Ashley Laurence in the role of Kirsty Cotton. After Kirsty disappears in a car accident, her husband Trevor wakes up in a hospital and begins suffering amnesia and hallucinations. Trevor slogs through the malaise, absolutely disoriented, as he’s beset by a slew of peculiar sexual advances and other spooky/inexplicable phenomena.
Like Inferno, this is another descent-into-madness psychological thriller, only this time around the narrative fragmentation and unreliable protagonist motif threaten to completely swallow the film’s coherence. Basically, Trevor cannot figure what in the fuck is going on, and neither can the viewer.
If Inferno was a decent script that lacked visual style, Hellseeker is just the opposite. This was the first in a trilogy of films directed by Rick Bota, a DP known in genre circles for such minor gems as Barb Wire (1996) and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995). No doubt due to his experience as a cinematographer, Bota succeeds in delivering one of the best-looking films in the series.
By the time the story is explained, it makes virtually no sense. Apparently this was due to the script undergoing successive rewrites when Ashley Laurence initially couldn’t be contacted but then popped up days before shooting began. As a result, the script is pretty much a boring and illogical mess.
Amusingly, Barker supposedly liked the film. He even had some marginal participation, a fact that unreasonably inflates status of this picture, truly one of the weakest entries in the franchise.
Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
“[He] can’t solve the puzzle. Only a few chosen ones, with just the right amount of depravity and loneliness in their soul, can.” – Marla
Fresh off the success of her breakout deep-cover exposé “How to Be a Crack Whore,” investigative journalist Amy Klein (Kari Whurer) is assigned to track down a European death cult by her smarmy, effete editor. Her research quickly devolves into the kind of dream-logic that Bota indulged in with Hellseeker, but this time the narrative is far more coherent and the stakes more clearly set.
The script was originally a standalone feature penned by Full Moon Entertainment lackey Benjamin Carr (as Neal Marshall Stevens) that Miramax had tweaked into a Hellraiser movie. According to Doug Bradley and others, this sloppy writing process had been in use since Inferno, which would go a long way explain some of these films’ baffling plots and utter lack of consistency.
Kari Wuhrer is great in the lead role, further demonstrating that these movies tend to work best with strong female leads. The film is peppered with the usual markers of a rushed, low-budget horror sequel, like bad lighting and shitty editing, but most of that is forgiven. Deader sees Bota continuing his honest effort at animating a franchise that can only be described as a shambles, and you’ve got to commend such a sincere effort.
One scene in particular, in which Amy struggles for an excruciating amount of time to remove a knife from her back, is truly brilliant. More than any sequel since Hellbound, Deader succeeds primarily by crafting a succession of memorable visuals and strange scenarios that evoke the depth of horror associated with the Lament Configuration.
As Amy travels deeper and deeper into the Romanian underground, she digs further into her own unconscious, where she encounters certain repressed traumas. As a result, the film attains a certain hypnotic rhythm that mimics the sexual charge associated with the pursuit of forbidden pleasures, the Box representing the Lacanian objet petit a,the unattainable object of desire.
Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
“Get your mythology right, buddy. First, I have to open the Box.” –Chelsea
Another of Miramax’s shoddily converted scripts, Hellworld was shot immediately after Deader in Romania with much the same exhausted crew. Film nerds may appreciate the following analogy: Hellworld is to Deader as Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979) is to Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). But it’s striking how completely different, in just about every way, Hellworld is from Deader, or indeed any of the previous Hellraiser films.
For one thing, this is where things finally get meta, with a story involving a group of friends casually obsessed with a Hellraiser MMPORG. (Wait, it’s not as bad as it sounds.) The plot actually has nothing to do with the video game itself, but rather takes place at a party held by the game’s most hardcore enthusiasts. Borrowing quite shamelessly from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the ensuing teenage hedonism on display converts the Box’s nuanced sexual connotations into the inevitable genre convention of “over-sexed teenagers about to get slaughtered.”
Fortunately the result is not entirely displeasing. The movie’s self-referential puns and devices are more than a little patronizing, but the insular (and oh so forgiving) fanbase actually watching this movie is likely to appreciate most of it. A young Henry Cavill (yes, him) doing his best Frank Cotton impression just cannot be missed. And did I mention Lance Hendrickson?
As direct-to-video horror flicks go, you can do a lot worse than Hellworld. Though most of it is essentially Scream-derivative slasher junk and Saw precursor, there’s more than meets the eye here. The villain’s lengthy expository monologue at the end reveals that a surprising amount of thought went into constructing this movie. It’d be too much to say any of it makes actual sense, but I will call it creative and damn near clever.
Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
“How can we experience ultimate pleasure without experiencing ultimate pain? How can we taste the truly sweet without a little bit of the sour?” –Vagrant
The most recent entry bears the ignominy of being the only Hellraiser film to not feature Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead. It’s also the only film that is truly not worth watching. I state these two observations independently of each other. This film isn’t a waste of time simply because it lacks Doug Bradley; it’s truly a piece of shit.
The film shifts mindlessly to and from found-footage style, for no apparent reason other than to excuse the film’s disorienting cinematography and editing. It features some of the worst and least entertaining acting I’ve ever seen, as the characters seem to wander through the script’s narrative space deprived of basic common sense.
The script was written by prolific makeup and effects artist Gary J. Tunnicliffe, who worked on all of the Miramax entries except Inferno. So it’s no surprise that the only time the film doesn’t feel like static noise is when it’s aping previous franchise concepts or getting super gory. The film does nail it once or twice in that sense, but it’s ultimately not worth the price of admission.
At one point, Pinhead describes a character’s pre-Cenobite life as a “flaccid existence.” That’s a great way to describe the status of this film, and the film franchise at large.
As I’ve expressed above, a journey through the Hellraiser films is no easy task. It’s actually quite painful. At the same time, it’s also pretty fantastic. The Hellraiser films are thought provoking, amusing, and nothing if not unique. But to access those pluses, you had better be ready for some negatives.
Isn’t it just perfect that a series premised on the disorienting relationship between pleasure and pain should subject the viewer to just such a sadomasochistic experience? It’s as if by choosing to be a Hellraiser fan, you open some kind of meta-Lament Configuration and condemn yourself to experiencing “pain and pleasure… indivisible.” The process feeds into itself over and over again, through lord knows how many more sequels and hypothetical remakes.
And you know what? I’m okay with that. The ecstasies are well worth the agonies. That’s the human psyche for you.
To paraphrase a great modern thinker on the topic: if psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it’s that we want to suffer.