‘The first five Hellraiser films from worst to best…’
The Hellraiser franchise will always play second fiddle to the big names of ’70s and ’80s horror movies. Myers. Krueger. Vorhees. But that’s ok. Pinhead likes it in the shadows. For this article I watched the first five Hellraiser movies. I’ll be honest, large parts of this, as with many horror sequels, were a chore. And it is for this reason that I didn’t bother with the 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th entry in the franchise (all of which were straight to video). Perhaps one day I will return to the world of cenobites, but for now, here’s five of the best…
5. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
‘Do I look like someone who cares what God thinks?’
Horror sequels tend to become more daft as the franchise goes on. This is how we end up with Jason Voorhees in space, or Freddy Krueger entering a video game. It’s all beautiful nonsense, and it’s one of the reasons I return to horror sequels. The issue with the Hellraiser franchise is that the first film is so outrageous that to follow the usual horror sequel trajectory, they really have to go nuts in the sequel. And so, to Hellraiser: Bloodline…
Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) is an occult obsessed scientist in the year 2127 who lives on a spaceship and is attempting to open Pinhead’s infamous puzzle box in a way that is controlled and safe so that he can vanquish him forever. As it happens, Merchant and his ancestors have been on this mission since 1796 when Merchant – or the toymaker as Pinhead dismissively labels him – first designed the puzzle box for an evil French aristocrat. So yes, as well as seeing Pinhead in space, we also spend the first third of the film in 18th century France in the company of lots of frilly shirts and long hair. That one of these French dukes is ably played by Adam Scott from Parks & Recreation only adds to the sense of the absurd. Later, the action moves to 1996 and it is here, 36 minutes in, when Pinhead finally arrives for the first time, despite Doug Bradley having top billing and his face adorning all the promotional material. It is during this sequence that two cops, who are inexplicably identical twins and are introduced, apropos of absolutely nothing, with a conversation about whether they would bang a trans woman, end up melded together to become one disgusting whole. Like I said, this is a weird movie.
More than any of the previous films, the fourth entry in the Hellraiser production had a troubled production. Storylines were dropped, huge swathes of the film were re-shot, ultimately resulting in this becoming an Alan Smithee production (the pseudonym used by film directors who want to disown a project). This all adds up to a film that is confusing, uneven and just… really weird. It’s also somehow quite boring despite everything that is going on.
Bloodline was the last Hellraiser film to receive a theatrical release and it is easy to see why. It just doesn’t work, despite the best efforts of Bruce Ramsay and Doug Bradley who are both actually pretty compelling. An oddity in the franchise, but one that I’m glad I saw. Even if I absolutely never want this film to darken my door again.
4. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
‘Your flesh is killing your spirit…’
The first straight to video entry in the franchise and my last stop on the Hellraiser train, Inferno is actually pretty strong. The fact that it started life as a wholly original horror script before having Pinhead and his acolytes crowbarred in at the last minute, actually doesn’t do Inferno much harm. The inclusion of Scott Derrickson on directing duties (who would later go on to direct Sinister and Doctor Strange) adds a bit of class to the proceedings and Craig Sheffer (Keith Scott from One Tree Hill) is actually pretty great.
That being said, you could probably skip the first hour of Inferno and have a better viewing experience but the ending is arguably the most successful since the first movie. The whole thing is a pleasant surprise.
3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
‘There is no good. There is no evil. There is only flesh…’
Here, we find Pinhead trapped in a kind of macabre totem poll. Only his grotesque head is visible. When local playboy J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt) buys the Pinhead statue from a mysterious museum, he sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to Monroe transforming into a character imaginatively named Pistonhead – seemingly because he has an actual piston attached to his head that kicks into his brain every few seconds or so. It’s that kind of movie. Elsewhere, newsreader Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) is trying to do something or other to do with the infamous puzzle box while constantly dreaming of some guy in Vietnam who turns out to be Pinhead in the past. None of it is important. The plot just kind of happens around all the death and murder.
Some horror film characters benefit from a fleshing out of their lore. Candyman is much scarier when you know his gruesome back story. Freddy Krueger became more interesting the more his sketchy past was exposed. Pinhead however, was a much more powerful entity when he was just some kind of unknowable, ancient evil. When you find out he was some balding jackass from the ’40s, he isn’t quite as sinister. Despite this, Doug Bradley is still menacingly effective in Hellraiser III, and you can see why he took centre stage in the franchise. Indeed, he is the only surviving Cenobite from the first movie, the others being replaced by ever more imaginative and ridiculous creations including one guy who has CDs crushed into his skull. And that’s the ’90s.
In the end, Hellraiser III is far from boring. There is one scene in particular in which Pinhead lays waste to a packed nightclub that is actually genuinely thrilling. Beyond that though there isn’t much artistic merit here, but then if you are looking to a movie entitled Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth for artistic merit then you are doing life all wrong.
2. Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988)
‘Your suffering will be legendary, even in hell…’
The thing that made the original Hellraiser so chillingly effective was the fact that it was so much more out there than its peers. A twisted, gothic tale of lust, pain and death that remains startlingly fresh over thirty years later. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (to give it is full moniker), could have played it safe to capitalise on the unexpected success of the first movie. Instead, director Tony Randel doubles down on the madness…
We pick up pretty much where Hellraiser left off with Julia (Clare Higgins) and Frank (Sean Chapman) confined to the depths of hell. Meanwhile, the long suffering protagonist Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) unsurprisingly finds herself in a secure mental health facility after telling the cops her father had been murdered by a guy with pins sticking out of his head who lives in a magical puzzle box. As ever, Kirsty can’t catch a break as she ends up in the care of the occult obsessed doctor Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham).
While some of the tropes here are familiar, indeed the mental hospital setting had been utilised to great acclaim in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors just a year before, the pivot into hardcore horror fantasy that is employed here was a ballsy move for a studio movie. Hellraiser II retains a lot of what made the source material so compelling but dials everything up to ten. More Cenobites, more time in hell, more skinless sex.
This doesn’t make the sequel a better film than Hellraiser, not everything here works and the drawn out conclusion is both confusing and ridiculously over the top, but you can forgive a horror sequel suffering by simply being too ambitious – normally, the opposite would be true.
Hellraiser II manages to stay true to Clive Barker’s story whilst expanding the Hellraiser universe and diving into the lore behind the central characters. A worthy oddity in the horror sequel canon.
1. Hellraiser (1987)
‘We’ll tear your soul apart…’
The ’80s was a golden era for horror films. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Thing, The Shining, the list goes on and on. While the tone and intended audience of those movies varies wildly, none of them are as wild as Hellraiser. From the mind of writer/director Clive Barker, Hellraiser explored themes and ideas that you just don’t normally find this side of a porno theatre, nevermind in a mainstream horror movie…
When Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) move into an inherited home, they are unaware that the ghost of Larry’s deranged brother Frank (Sean Chapman) still stalks the house – and he wants blood. In life, Frank was an unbalanced hedonist who, while seeking the ultimate thrill, summoned the Cenobites, hellish creatures from another dimension. Led by the malevolent Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the Cenobites will stop at nothing to reclaim Frank’s soul, even if that means the destruction of Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).
If that plot summary sounds a bit out there, the direction and cinematography from novice director Clive Barker lend the film an even stranger feel. Hellraiser was clearly filmed across England, but the studio changed the fictional location to an unnamed American suburb at the last minute. This only adds to the ethereal and unreal quality of the whole piece, as does the wildly differing acting styles at play. Andrew Robinson is stilted and slightly wooden, as is typical of the ’80s, whereas his onscreen partner Clare Higgins is wild and unhinged. Only Ashley Laurence brings an easy naturalism to her role, and this stylistic mish mash makes for a jarring experience. But that’s what Hellraiser is. It is jarring. It is weird. As with the Cenobites, it exists in between states. It’s a B movie with imaginative and terrifying special effects. It’s a horror film that doubles as soft erotica. It’s high art with a cheesy ending. This is a film that is impossible to pin down (no pun intended). And it is all these elements together that ensure that Hellraiser remains as peculiar and uncanny now as it did over thirty years ago.
It has recently been announced that Halloween director David Gordon Green will be at the helm for an HBO reworking of Hellraiser. If Green can make something as iconic and wilfully bizarre as the original, then he will certainly be on to something.
Thanks for reading. Don’t stick pins in your face.