In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad.
I know what you must be thinking: I’ve lost my mind to even consider a direct-to-video sequel to Hellraiser (a Part Five, even) as not just good, but deserving of your praise and attention.
As long-running horror franchises tend to do, the Hellraiser series fell further off the rails with each new entry—many would argue as early as its third, after which the Hellraiser brand never really recovered. Following the debacle that was Hellraiser: Bloodline (featuring a revolving door of directors and consistent script changes), there was really nowhere else to go, continuity-wise. Perhaps that’s why each sequel to follow Bloodline (Inferno, Hellseeker, Deader, and Hellworld) were original non-Hellraiser scripts doctored to appear part of the franchise. (The Weinsteins were somewhat infamous for doing this to their horror properties – I believe Children of the Corn suffered the same fate.) And maybe that’s why these entries were better than any of the theatrically released sequels. (Yes, I am including Hellbound in that group, for I was never a fan of that entry.)
With interest, I delved into negative reviews by movie fans to ascertain what it is about this entry they just didn’t like. After all, Inferno had all the requisite Hellraiser iconography: chains tearing through flesh, creepy sexual intonations, an array of masticated cenobites, and gruesome bloody deaths. “Pinhead is barely in it!” I read. (Count his screen time in the first Hellraiser.) “He’s not even the villain!” (Was he ever meant to be?)
If a person wanted to argue with me that Inferno was a weak Hellraiser film because it failed to carry on the spirit established by Clive Barker in the first two films, I wouldn't have much of an argument. That person would be right. But that doesn't mean Hellraiser: Inferno should be outright dismissed, either. Because it's a rather strong film with strong performances, creepy imagery, and unflinching gore gags.
Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Scheffer) is a born puzzle solver. His affinity for chess and word riddles alludes to his natural decision/desire to become a detective with the police department. He's not exactly a model human being, however. This comes across rather quickly.
While tending to the scene of a homicide along with his partner Tony Nenonen (Nicholas Turturro), he discovers that the slain was actually an old school mate of his. Discovered at the scene are a child's dismembered finger (somehow embedded into the wax of a candle) and the infamous puzzle box—one, if opened, that releases all manner of evil onto the world. Being that it's in Joseph's nature, he opens the box...and his private hell begins. He's soon thrust into a nightmarish world where he begins tracking a faceless figure responsible for the methodical killing off of individuals who played a part in Thorne's own misspent life. This investigation leads him into the most wild of places—even crossing paths with a cowboy for whom the faceless figure seems to be working. By film's end we realize that Thorne isn't just trying to find the mastermind behind all of this—dubbed The Engineer—but he's also trying to salvage his own innocence.
Craig Scheffer was born to play a douche bag. He’s immensely talented as an actor, but with that grating voice and that evil smirk, he was genetically designed to be a character that dares you to sympathize with him. He plays Joseph incredibly close to the vest, pushing the idea of “unlikable” to its limits, but yet you still do manage to hope he can somehow find his way out of the rabbit hole through which he descends for nearly the entire running time. Watch him steal money from a crime scene, blackmail his partner, do coke and bang whores, and physically assault suspects—all while his family waits for him at home. But also watch him feel compelled to do his job and attempt to save this child he believes kidnapped and in the possession of a severely fucked-up madman. Watch him care about another human being that he’s never met. The character of Joseph is as gray as they come: not all good, but not all bad, either. He’s flawed, as we all are, but not undeserving of empathy.
Doug Bradley returns for his fifth time, donning the pins and leather bondage costume to play Pinhead, and though in later years he never withheld his extreme dissatisfaction with the film’s end result, he does his typical job here. Pinhead, as well as Bradley’s interpretation of him, hasn't really changed since the first film, so the continuity is serviceable and satisfying. Bradley, a self-proclaimed atheist, claims that the “hell” featured in the first two Hellraiser films wasn’t of the Christian idea of hell, but the indefinable idea of hell. He sums up his presence in the film as being a “folksy moralist”—a sort of “Uncle Pinhead” who equates his monologue at the film’s conclusion to him warning children to look both ways before they cross the street. Clearly he’s not happy to have been a part of the experience (and is even one of those who claims he was barely in it—which, again…count his screen time in the first film). While I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of his opinions on each entry, I’d be utterly mystified to hear that he considered something like Hellworld or Deader to be superior. Still, Pinhead remains very much a behind-the-scenes figure (as his character works best in small doses) and acts more as a judge and jury rather than the executioner. It’s less like he’s the primary motivator in all of Joseph’s victimization, and more like he happened to be walking by Joseph in hell and opted for a closer look.
Dad from "Dexter" (James Remar) shows up, nearly unrecognizable behind his beard and priest garb, to play Joseph's psychoanalyst of sorts. He offers a rather soft and paternal performance—one of the rare uncorrupted characters in Inferno's line-up. He helps Joseph to organize his frazzled mind and provides him with a rational voice.
Hellraiser: Inferno was directed by Scott Derrickson, with whom I like to think horror fans have grown quite familiar. He did, after all, direct this year’s creepfest Sinister (sequel coming soon!) and the similarly dismissed and unheralded The Exorcism of Emily Rose. His script (co-written with Paul Harris Boardman, who is also providing the screenplay for the Memphis Three film Devil’s Knot) is certainly unlike the other films in the series, but not unlike films we have seen before. There is a reason why the film is called Inferno, after all, as it’s about a man journeying through his own private and specific hell. Only this time his goal isn't to save his departed beloved, but to confront a life lived poorly and selfishly with little regard for how he treated others.
One of Derrickson's strong points as a filmmaker is his ability to create unnerving imagery. Except for his overblown (and studio-tampered) big budget remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he has yet to make a genre film that doesn't contain at least one legitimately creepy set piece. The Exorcism of Emily Rose was bolstered by passersby with dripping faces and Jennifer Carpenter's own unnatural abilities as a dancer to contort her own body to uncomfortable positions. And Sinister was dripping with eerie visages—namely the creation of main boogey baddie Bughuul. Inferno's new Cenobites (featuring a new take on 'The Chatterer") are quite effective—they tread that fine line Barker established by making them horrifying, but also undeniably erotic.
Being that I am a horror aficionado, I have quite a few films at home on the ol' shelf. I used to be of the mind that if you owned one entry in an established series, you should own all of them. I was a completist in that sense. Which means that even though I may have only liked Child's Play 1 and 2, I owned all five. I eventually defeated that mindset and cleaned out a lot of garbage. As far as the Hellraiser series is concerned, I own two entries: the first film, and this one. If you remove yourself from the idea that the Hellraiser series tells one continuous story (and dear god, you know it doesn't—they gave up on that long ago), you'll find a lot to admire about Inferno. Yes, the name Hellraiser was bulldozed into the title, but blame the Weinsteins. Don't blame the filmmakers. Because they contributed a pretty solid horror film—one that predates the 1987 release of the first film and harks back to the real inspiration: a divine poem from the 14th century.