Movie Review: The Whole Damn Hellraiser Franchise

Hellraiser, Puzzle box[This is the twenty-first through twenty-ninth selection in my irregular, “My Wife and Kids are Visiting Relatives and I’m Home Watching Movies” film festival. Yes, I watched all of these. In a row. In a day. More than 13 hours. Do you people see the lengths to which I will go to prevent myself from making an actual contribution to society?]

I was 16 years-old in 1987 when the first “Hellraiser” movie came out.  Back then the only thing approaching what we now know as “the Internet” existing solely in the minds of schizophrenics so I was forced to wait for the VHS release of the movie to see it.  I had just recently gotten into horror in a big way based on the recommendations of a friend and was a big fan of Clive Barker [Wikipedia].  The movie, written and directed by Barker and based on his novella, “The Hellbound Heart” [Wikipedia], the movie was twisted, gruesome and most importantly, different.

The fundamentals are rather simple: if you solve a mysterious puzzle box demonic creatures called “cenobites”, led by the iconic Priest/Pinhead would appear tear your soul from your flesh.  While some did this out of ignorance many chose the box knowingly in an attempt to experience the utter sensuality in utter pain.

It provided a perspective on horror as an expression of human extremes; as something inside us writhing its way out as opposed to something externally impacting us.  It was low budget, to be sure, and even then the special effects were pretty awful but the novelty of it cemented it as a cult classic that has, since spawned a motley collection of nine films in total.

While Barker himself distanced himself from the films after the first the ideas of “Hellraiser” lived on in comics and various short stories featuring the cenobites and the puzzle box.  My favorite to this day remains the haunting “Dance of the Fetus” by Ted McKeever [Wikipedia] which appeared in the first issue of “Clive Barker’s Hellraiser” by Epic Comics.  In the story a manically depressed woman, unknowingly pregnant, asked the cenobite “Mr. Soul” to help her commit suicide, after which he claims her soul for hell.  The fetus, called “Simply Fetus”, is an innocent and set, cruelly, free to wander alone.  It’s a devastatingly powerful, devilishly clever story.

Hellraiser is one of those rare ideas that can spawn an infinite number of mutually supportive stories, characters and styles. Unfortunately, for the most part, the people making films didn’t get  that memo.

The Movies

The cinematic franchise began in 1987.  The first four films were released theatrically with the last, “Bloodlines”, in 1996.  Since then there have been five direct-to-video entries in the series with the last, “Revelations”, in 2011.  As you’ll see it’s questionable as to whether these direct-to-video entries should really be considered true parts of the franchise at all.

The nine films, together, have made just over $84 million.  This makes “Hellraiser” the lowest performing “major” horror franchise in the U.S.  The next lowest is the “Child’s Play” franchise with $200 million and the highest is the “Friday the 13th” franchise at $614 million.  That said the films have always remained profitable with the average budget for each coming in at less than $2 million.

I watched all of the movies as a very painful, one-day marathon.  Here are my thoughts on each:

IMDB, Hellraiser 1Hellraiser
87 Minutes, 1987, IMDB

The first film is likely the best overall and the only one to be directed by Clive Barker himself. It suffered more from ridiculously bad effects than the others (reportedly the budget ran out and many of the effects were done over a single drunken weekend).  On the plus side the story is tight and simple relying more on tension and warped sexuality to disturb rather than shock.

As an aside, rewatching it after all these years I kept having this nagging feeling of recognition. I finally realized that the male lead, Andrew Robinson [IMDB] played Garak on “Deep Space Nine” [IMDB]; one of the best characters on one of the best sci-fi shows ever.  As another aside, 80’s hair-dos can drain the seriousness out of literally anything.

IMDB, Hellraiser 2Hellbound: Hellraiser II
87 Minutes, 1988, IMDB

This one picked up exactly where the first left off and, for some reason, made generous use of the former’s atrocious special effects shots. Kirsty (who the actors randomly call “Kristy”) has been placed in a mental institution that just happens to be run by a man obsessed with the puzzle boxes. This one attempts to build a weird mythology around the cenobites: they’re not from Hell, they’re from the “Labyrinth” where a giant puzzle box named “Leviathan” rules.

It doesn’t make much sense but it does introduce the origin of Pinhead and, by extension, the other cenobites. The movie also marks the first time that somebody tries to trick the cenobites – in this case to distract them by having a mentally disturbed girl open the puzzle box. The story and the mystique of the cenobites suffers greatly from spending so much time in their realm. They should have remained unknowable.

IMDB, Hellraiser 3Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
87 Minutes, 1992, IMDB

This is the one that I remembered best for some reason. Loosely based on the (very weak) sequel hook from the second this changes the tone from psychosexual torture to more equal parts mystery and slasher movie. In fact the whole last half of the movie is really just our heroine running from Pinhead-and-friends who are killing many, many people in many, many ways. This one is also notable for trying, too hard in my opinion, to humanize Pinhead.

It does feature my favorite exchange in the series:  As Joey is runs into a church to escape Pinhead the resident priest tries to comfort her. When she explains she’s running from demons he says, “Demons aren’t real. They’re parables, metaphors.” At that moment Pinhead enters in all his glory and Joey responds, perfectly, “Then what the fuck is that?”  It may not be poetry, but I like it.

Lastly this starred another “Deep Space Nine” alumnus, Terry Farrell [IMDB] in her one of her very few theatrical appearances. I still miss “Deep Space Nine”.  I probably should have watched a marathon of that instead.

IMDB, Hellraiser 4Hellraiser: Bloodlines
87 Minutes, 1996, IMDB

Although I may be mistaken, I think one had the largest budget and it comes close to the first in the quality of the story. A loose, three part anthology spanning five centuries, it explores the origin of the puzzle boxes and the family that created them. It wisely decided to ignore the overly complex cenobite backstory established in the first three (especially the second) movies.

The first story, set in the 1700’s details the creation of the first puzzle box (or “Lament Configuration”) by a talented toymaker at the request of a wealthy demonologist. It also introduces the idea of a way to destroy the cenobites.  Designed by the guilt-ridden toymaker to destory what he had unwittingly unleashed the solution is impossible to construct in his time. The second story is built directly off the sequel hook of the third movie.  A descendent of the toymaker, an architect, is subconsciously inspired by the puzzle box hidden in the building’s foundation to design a building that can, itself, be used as a gateway to hell. The wrapper story, set on a space-station in the future, concerns another descendent of the toymaker and his attempt to trap the cenobites in space and realize his ancestor’s plan to destroy them.

The movie worked as an excellent slipcase for the entire series. It gave us a definitive start to the story, wrapped up threads from the earlier movies and gave us a definitive ending.  It may not have been a wholly satisfying ending but it made sense and respected the rules of the series.  If only the makers of the next five had respected them as well.

IMDB, Hellraiser 5Hellraiser: Inferno
87 Minutes, 2000, IMDB

Released 13 years after the original this first direct-to-video offering enjoys radically improved effects.  They still suck compared to contemporaries but set a high-water mark for the franchise. Setting a precedent for the next four movies the script is a cheaper spec-script already owned by the studio and altered slightly to include Hellraiser themes and references.  The tone of the film is a radical departure from the sweeping metaphysical grandeur of the theatrical released.  The puzzle box and cenobites incidental, used only as feeble explanation for the main character’s descent into madness.

The movie isn’t really terrible, although the bad film noir-style narration grates like sandpaper after the first two minutes.  As a low-budget horror film it’s average.  As a Hellraiser movie it’s pitiful.

IMDB, Hellraiser 6Hellraiser: Hellseeker
87 Minutes, 2002, IMDB

Like the fifth movie this was non-Hellraiser script retrofitted to be part of the franchise. Unlike the fifth this was specifically altered to continue Kirsty Cotten’s original storyline rather than create a stand alone story. The bulk of the movie is a pretty standard “descent into madness” theme. Like the fifth most of the movie had only fleeting references to Hellraiser but the ending dragged the story squarely into the larger Hellraiser narrative.

The movie relies more on tension and confusion for scares than gore and is generally pretty successful. I’m not thrilled with the treatment Kirsty is given but at least it’s consistent with itself, if not with our broader hopes for the character.

IMDB, Hellraiser 7Hellraiser: Deader
87 Minutes, 2005, IMDB

Yet another script repurposed to be part of the franchise. But we are getting serious about producing real early-aughts schlock: we’ve got Kari Wuhrer [IMDB] on board! I like her – she’s actually a damn fine actress – but her catalog definitely gives a specific impression and this film doesn’t break the mold. Here she’s a plucky investigative reporter sent to Romania to investigate an underground cult leader that can apparently bring the dead back to life.

They make the cult leader a descendant of the puzzle boxes designer, they include some references to the box and there are cameos by Pinhead but the sad bottom line is the story makes absolutely no sense in the context of “Hellraiser”. This is an otherwise decent horror flick ultimately made ridiculous by the addition of bastardized, nonsensical Hellraiser elements.

IMDB, Hellraiser 8Hellraiser: Hellworld
87 Minutes, 2005, IMDB

Did I say they were serious about mid-aught schlock when they hired Kari Wuhrer? With this film, released just a few months after the last, they upped that ante considerably: Lance Henriksen [IMDB], bitches!  Diving headfirst into the “meta” pool we get a repurposed story where “Hellraiser” is the source material for a hugely popular video game called “Hellworld”. Luckily the movie doesn’t take place in the game (because from the little we see it looks like shit) but rather at an exclusive party at a creepy old convent catering to people that have “opened the box” in the game.

The whole movie plays as a mediocre slasher flick with none of the nuances one would expect from Hellraiser. Pinhead loses all sense of gravitas and repeatedly resorts to simple, uninspired murder like some second rate Freddy Kruger. I’ll also note that these last three films (all by the same director) are the only ones to feature what I would consider gratuitous nudity.  One good thing to say about this is that it didn’t seem to cause any permanent damage: Henry Cavill [IMDB] ended up as Superman [IMDB], after all!

IMDB, Hellraiser 9Hellraiser: Revalations
87 Minutes, 2011, IMDB

About the only good thing I can say about this one is that it was, at least, written to be a “Hellraiser” movie. The problem is, it’s a shitty one.  A really shitty one.  Apparently the only reason this movie was made (and in a matter of a few weeks at that) was for Dimension films to meet a contractual guideline.  Reportedly unhappy with the quality of the production franchise lynchpin Doug “Pinhead” Bradley [IMDB] refused to participate.

It starts out as a half-assed found footage movie and slides right into a half-assed trapped in a cabin movie.  The new cenobites (especially Pinhead) look terrible and they all seem to inhabit a studio apartment rather than a hell limited only by the darkest imagination.  The cheap video quality neuters any atmosphere and the terrible script is supported by equally terrible actors.

Conclusion

Apparently by completing that last piece of shit, Dimension Films has maintained legal rights to the franchise.  They are rumored to be exercising them with a big (for them) budget reboot of the series.  Unfortunately this has apparently been “in development” for at least three years and has burned through multiple creative teams and scripts.  Some reports indicate that the studio is demanding that the new film not exceed a PG-13 rating so as to be “teen friendly”, other’s say that the producers are simply unable to maintain focus.

Whatever the case may be it’s clear to me that the franchise, as it stands, has been on life-support (if not zombified) since the fourth film.  While the direct-to-video films have ranged from decent to horrifically bad none of them were truly “Hellraiser films”.  Most were spec scripts with Hellraiser themes bolted on and the last, “Revelations”, was pure shit.  In short, as a cinematic franchise, “Hellraiser” should have died peacefully 17 years ago.

Luckily the franchise lives on, although at irregular intervals, in the excellent comics and short stories.  If you’re willing to dig through crap (and if you watched all these movies you definitely are) there’s also some excellent fan fiction available at FanFiction.net and other locations.  Any of this is likely to be much better than the movies being released.

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