Nov 30, 2019


Hellraiser, at its start, seemed like the least likely horror film to spawn a franchise for many reasons — the first of those being the extremely odd and daring subject matter. Though Hellraiser was released in the ‘80s – the very decade that saw the first installments in what would become major horror franchises – Hellraiser wasn’t simply about a maniac with an unforgettable appearance mowing down the innocent. Halloween, though made in 1978, officially became a franchise in 1981 when its sequel was released; many would argue that, though it was not the first official slasher film ever made, it was the first that would kick-start the genre and inspire a storm of imitators, which directly led to the creation of the Friday the 13th franchise. But whether you’re talking about a legitimately classy film like Halloween, or a slice of popcorn escapism like Friday the 13th, neither film would be fairly labeled as complex. Their concepts could be broken down into one sentence.

Hellraiser's couldn’t.

Hellraiser was sicker, slimier, angrier, and more depraved. On its surface it was about a mysterious puzzle box that had the power to open the gates of hell and allow demons (to some, angels to others) to emerge. But below that it was about sexual depravity, about the limits one kind of individual wanted to reach. It was about finding that straddling line between pain and pleasure. And honestly, it introduced certain taboos into the mainstream (well, the semi-mainstream) that had never been discussed in such a public way...unless you had read director Clive Barker’s writing at that point. The mastermind behind “The Hellbound Heart,” which was later fleshed out into the screenplay for Hellraiser, had been having that discussion for years.

Following the groundbreaking original film, eight sequels (!) would eventually follow, more and more shifting Pinhead – originally just one of many demons (called Cenobites) who was never intended to be the focal point – into the limelight. And, as was usually the case, his character would appear in each subsequently diminishing entry, soon becoming DTV franchise fodder like Puppetmaster and the Corn kids. Like many other horror franchises, how they play out in their latter entries seldom resemble how they looked in their earliest days. In the first Hellraiser, Pinhead appears fleetingly – not the main antagonist, but a monster whom one must face when seeking the ultimate pleasure. By the final entry (at least the final one with Bradley), Pinhead had become a ghost haunting a website (or something) and swinging machetes into teens’ necks, cutting their heads off with a snarl. (Seriously.) He became the very thing Barker hadn’t intended, as Pinhead’s introduction into pop culture grouped his Hellraiser in with all the other horror properties…where it didn’t belong.

Made with a very low budget, Hellraiser was the horror film no one was expecting. By the time its release year of 1987 rolled around, the Friday the 13th franchise was already on its seventh entry; Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street, their fifth. And already their concepts were starting to wear thin. Clive Barker, after having had no success with a handful of short experimental films based on his own short stories, wrote and directed the ’87 horror cheapie about a shaky marriage with a history of familial infidelity and a desire for a new beginning, both shaken by the reappearance of a familiar face. (Well, kind of.) Not at all your typical ’80s horror (despite the hero being a plucky teen girl, played by Ashley Laurence), Hellraiser was about the limits of desire, the consequences of self-destructive behavior, and the lengths one will go for what they perceive to be love. The faces remain the same in Hellraiser, but the real faces behind them often change. Larry Cotton (Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have moved back to Larry’s old family home (never given a specific location, but one which was originally meant to be London). It’s the same house that bore witness to the former immediate scene of Larry’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman) having opened the puzzle box and being ripped apart by the Cenobites for his troubles. It’s there, following a bit of unexplained bloody voodoo, that Frank is resurrected as a slimy skinless humanoid, whom Julia discovers living in the attic. Being that Frank and Julia had engaged in a bit of coitus prior to her wedding to Larry, she still desires him (either emotionally or sexually), so when Frank orders her to bring him blood by any means necessary in an effort to continue reforming his body, Julia agrees. But it’s when Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Laurence) comes to visit that Julie and Frank’s scheme gets a little complicated.

It goes without saying that the first Hellraiser is the best in the series, though many fans would point to its immediate sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, as the superior entry (more on that in a bit). Celebrated for its inventive practical effects in the same way as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hellraiser plays out like a doomed romance, with Julia becoming a murderess to reform Frank in hopes that they would again be together. In spite of all the grime and grit and spilled blood, it’s actually a sad story – a Greek tragedy that unfolds with equal levels Shakespearean drama and EC Comics irony. And yes, despite the original intention for Julia to actually be seen as the main villain and the takeaway face of Hellraiser, it would be Doug Bradley as Pinhead who would inadvertently walk away with the final association with the Hellraiser brand. His impressive appearance, along with fellow Cenobites Chatterer, Butterball, and “Female Cenobite” (she got the short stick in the names department), though limited to roughly ten minutes, would be powerful and effective enough to not only spawn a franchise but inherit the mantle of the main villain going forward.

Call it the return of New World Pictures as financier, or the short amount of time between films, or the returning of much of the creative force (sans Clive Barker, who only provided a rough outline of the story), Hellbound: Hellraiser II feels like not just a natural sequel, but the second half of the overall Hellraiser story. Following Uncle Frank and Julia’s comeuppance, Kirsty, understandably, now finds herself a patient at the Channard Institute for the mentally ill as police try to piece together what exactly happened in that house. Very unfortunately for Kirsty, Dr. Channard himself (Kenneth Cranham), harbors the same blood-thirsty need for the next level of passion-meets-pain, and has been researching the puzzle box for years (and who seriously looks like Old Tom Hardy). In one of the most uncomfortable scenes to ever appear in a horror film, which sees a mentally ill patient slicing himself with a straight razor to kill the bugs he believes are crawling all over him, his torrential blood flow leaks onto the stolen mattress on which Julia had perished in the previous film, resurrecting her, and she becomes Channard’s guide directly into the pits of hell. Meanwhile, Kirsty does stuff involving a mute girl at the hospital who just so happens to really enjoy puzzles; for their troubles, they also end up in hell.

Aesthetically, Hellbound: Hellraiser II really does play out like a natural second half, but in doing so also becomes somewhat lost in its own story. Unsure of what it wants to be, it sacrifices some of its sexual daringness in favor of focusing much of its journey on its descent into hell, where Kirsty believes her father to be, and who’s in need of rescue following a dream in which he appeared to her in skinless form, scrawling bloodily on the wall, “I AM IN HELL HELP ME.” Julia (a returning Clare Higgins) is certainly sexier and more diabolical, but compared to the conflicted iteration of herself in the first film, she comes off less interesting. Once she’s reborn and her skinless ass groped by Dr. Channard, she’s given absolutely nothing to do except walk around and grin big.

By this time it had become apparent that Doug Bradley’s Pinhead was the star, and though his screen time in the makeup isn’t necessarily increased, his character is fleshed out, being ret-conned as a former British soldier during the first World War who opens the puzzle box and subsequently becomes the pointy-faced demon we all know and love. Hellbound: Hellraiser II boasts some interesting and impressive visuals from first-time director Tony Randel, taking over for Barker, but also a few asinine “twists” – such as “Satan” being a gigantic puzzle box which shoots lasers, or — my favorite  — Frank revealing himself as the one who appeared to Kirsty and wrote her the bloody note, all in an effort to lure her into hell so they could bang.

This was Frank’s big idea.

Way to go Frank.

And it’s with Hellraiser’s third film that Pinhead is made the front-and-center villain, receiving a boost in screen time and a copy of Freddy Krueger’s Official Guide to Awful Ironic Puns. Screenwriter Peter Atkins, who returns from duties on Hellbound: Hellraiser II, again scripts this entry – one that he admits isn’t very far removed from the original intention, but who is also happy to admit that the new rights holders of the Hellraiser franchise wanted different things from what came before. Basically, they wanted their own horror villain to turn into a sadistic sidesplitting bad guy to lure in a different kind of audience (the kind who thought Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was just a total hoot). They got their wish.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth focuses on a reporter named Joey Summerskill who stumbles ass-backwards into a Pinhead-like situation after witnessing a poor guy stabbed with rusty chains being wheeled into an operating room one night at the hospital, putting her directly on the bloody path of Pinhead, recently freed from a statue (?) by a New York playboy who fancies himself worthy of sitting at the right hand of the king of Hell. (He’s basically the new Julia, only intensely punchable.) If there’s a reason that logline sounds stupid, it’s because it is. Very much so. Except for watching Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth turn a once-frightening demon into a pun-dropping pain in the ass who – no bullshit – turns people into Cenobites that have cameras in their heads or can fire CDs like saw blades – this second sequel doesn’t offer much depth, daringness, or really anything at all besides yet another example of diminishing returns. Pinhead’s sad transition into Freddy Krueger-lite was inevitably completed, aided by a more than willing Anthony Hickox (the Waxworks series) stepping into the director’s chair for Tony Randel, who wisely opted not to return.

Dimension Films would maintain their hold on the franchise, turning out one entry after another, but after the spectacular failure of Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (credited to phantom director Alan Smithee, which in movie talk means RUN), ironically, non-Hellraiser related horror scripts would be picked up by the production house, rewritten to include Pinhead and Hellraiser elements, and would then actually offer far more solid one-offs than the series’ earlier official sequels. (I’ll defend Scott Derrickson’s Hellraiser: Inferno from now until the end of time – the first sequel to go direct to video, but the best since the original.) The Hellraiser franchise continues to chug along, with a new entry—Hellraiser: Judgment—released in 2018. It’s the tenth film of the franchise and the second subsequent sequel on which Doug Bradley has passed, so that probably tells you everything you need to know. For almost ten years, Dimension Films have been trying to bring a proper remake of Hellraiser to life, and all kinds of interesting people – from Inside's Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury to Drive Angry's Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier – have taken a crack. Currently the task rests in the hands of super hack writer David S. Goyer, but word has been quiet, so who really knows what's going on? One thing is certain: you can't keep a good bad guy down, and Pinhead will return – one way or the other.

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