Doing for horror what punk did for rock music in the late 70′s, Hellraiser swept through a genre that had gone stale with countless slasher sequels and was pandering towards a more fashion-conscious teenage market. A darker and more extreme vision of genre, Hellraiser was certainly a game-changer at the time and despite the typical dip in quality as the series went on – nine films so far and counting – the original film, and to a lesser extent it’s sequel, is held in very high regard by a lot of horror fans, and although the threat of a remake is always looming, it seems unlikely that any sort of reboot will be acceptable to fans unless Barker is involved in some capacity. But until then, let’s take a look at the series so far and try to pinpoint where the pleasure turned into pain…
Hellraiser (Clive Barker, UK/USA, 1987)
Just to give you bit of perspective on where horror was at in 1987, The Lost Boys was the big mainstream hit, Jaws the Revenge was the year’s most unintentional comedy and Freddy Krueger was about to make the leap to horror icon status with the ambitious A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Evil Dead II had emerged and although immensely popular with both genre and mainstream audiences it was a sequel and for all intents and purposes a more comedic version of an older film. It was all looking a bit safe so a kick up the botty was required, and Clive Barker was the man about to give the scene a right good kicking with his debut feature film, based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart.
But first the story. After buying and solving a mysterious puzzle box Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is pulled apart by hooked chains and his body destroyed, his soul taken to another dimension by grotesque demonic figures for what appears to be eternal torment..
Shift forward a bit and Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his new wife Julia (Clare Higgins) are moving in to Larry’s family home, previously occupied by the wayward Frank. Although Julia is reluctant to move in she soon relaxes her attitude when she finds a picture of Frank, stirring up memories of their torrid affair that Larry is unaware of. On the day of the move Larry cuts his hand on a nail and bleeds on the floor of the attic, the site of Frank’s demise and where his soul is able to feed on his brother’s blood and escape his torturous captivity.
One evening Julia visits the attic where the resurrected body of Frank appears and tells Julia that in order to be whole again he needs more blood. Playing on her love for him, he forces her to bring a series of men back to the house and kill them before Frank takes the nourishment he needs. All goes well for a bit but one day Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) shows up to try and bond with her unfriendly stepmother, but interrupts Uncle Frank’s feeding process. After a confrontation during which Frank tries to… ahem… be nice to his niece, Kirsty sees that Frank is desperate to keep hold of the puzzle box and manages to escape by throwing it through a window, knowing that her skinless uncle cannot follow.
After passing out in the street Kirtsy is rushed to hospital where she opens the puzzle box and unwittingly unleashes the same demonic forces that Frank had escapd from. Known as the Cenobites, the four demons – including The Female, Chatterer, Butterball and lead by the regal Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – tell Kirsty they cannot return to where they came from without a soul. In a desperate bid to save her life Kirsty offers to lead the Cenobites to Frank in exchange for her own life. But can she lead them to Frank before he kills his brother Larry to make himself complete and escape with Julia? And can the Cenobites be trusted to keep their end of the bargain?
Looking at it written down, the plot probably looks quite complicated but as soon as the film starts it keeps up a pretty decent pace, rarely dipping below pretty damn chilling on the scare-o-meter. Infused with sado-masochistic imagery, a subtle sense of surrealism and Clive Barker’s own dark vision of Hell and the afterlife, it is quite difficult to overstate just what a landmark film this is. Made on a budget of around a million dollars, the film follows in that great tradition of low-budget films like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Evil Dead by having a director with a vision and a knack for being inventive. Despite the lack of funds the film looks fantastic, especially Frank’s gloopy resurrection scene – in fact an added scene after New World International were so impressed with what Clive Barker was doing that they threw some more money at the film to do the scene properly – during which his body – bones, nerves, veins and muscles – is seen reconstructing itself (a clever deconstruction effect played backwards). The Cenobites also look amazing in their extreme S&M gear, appearing more grubby and less polished than they did in later films.
As well as Clive Barker and his special effects team, much of the credit for the film’s success must also go to Doug Bradley for his minimalistic portrayal of Pinhead, although he wasn’t called Pinhead for this film. Just credited as Lead Cenobite, it was never intended for the character to be anything more than a supporting role – his screen time is less than ten minutes and even his character in the book is nothing more than a minor player – but the marketing for the film used shots of Pinhead for the trailers and audiences seemed to like the character. But more on him later…
The other performances in the film are also very good. Andrew Robinson and Ashley Laurence are very convincing as the father and daughter not really aware of the enormity of what’s going on, Laurence in particular being a more effective heroine than other female horror leads like Heather Langenkamp or Jessica Biel. Clare Higgins plays the wicked stepmother very well, getting the right mix of cruelty and vulnerability just right. The role of Frank was played by two actors; Sean Chapman playing the fully human Frank and Oliver Smith – due to his skinny frame – playing him sans skin.
Despite the film being a true connoisseur’s favourite, the initial reception was mixed. Very bleak and humourless, it’s easy to see why it had the impact it did given that most other horror films of the era were going down the slapstick route. Much like changing James Bond from the chucklesome dinosaur Roger Moore to the more brooding Timothy Dalton, audiences weren’t really prepared for such a shift in tone. Nevertheless, the film has made many times its original budget and its influence can be felt across the genre today with films like Hostel and Martyrs owing more than a small debt to it. If there is anything negative to say about it then the ending is a little disappointing, merely clearing things up fairly quickly and easily rather than doing anything totally satisfying, but it doesn’t really matter as the ride that brought you to that point was so intense that it couldn’t really have ended any other way.
So that was that then… for a week anyway, as a sequel was quickly given the go-ahead. But this time it would be on their turf…
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, UK/USA, 1988)
One year later and Hellbound: Hellraiser II was unleashed, only this time around there were a few changes, most notably in the director’s chair. Clive Barker did not return, instead getting a producer’s credit and handing over the directing reins to Tony Randel, who had been an editor on the first film (and went on to direct Amityville 1992: It’s About Time – but don’t let that cloud your judgement!), and a couple of key cast members too.
Picking up a few hours after the events of Hellraiser, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) has been taken to the Channard Institute, a psychiatric hospital, where she is under the care of Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) and his assistant Kyle (William Hope). After seeing a vision of what she thinks is her father pleading for help from beyond the grave, Kirsty tells Kyle the whole story about the Lament Configuration box, Frank, Julia and the Cenobites. Kyle goes to Channard’s house and discovers that the doctor is an avid collector of occult paraphernalia and has several drawings and models of the box but before Kyle can leave Channard appears with the bloody mattress that Julia died on and a mental patient with a straight razor who has a thing about insects on his body.
After witnessing the rebirth of a skinless Julia, Kyle escapes and returns to Kirsty to tell her of what he has seen. Helping her escape the institute, the pair go back to Channard’s and have a confrontation with Julia (Clare Higgins) before Channard introduces a mute patient called Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) into the scenario. Tiffany has a gift for solving puzzles so Channard gives her the Lament Configuration box and before you know it Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his cohorts are back to claim more souls, albeit not Tiffany’s as they realise that she was not the cause of their being called. Escaping into the void from where the Cenobites came, Kirsty, Julia, Channard and Tiffany find themselves in the labyrinthine corridors of the underworld, but whereas Kirsty must face her past demons, Julia has other plans for Channard and his desire to know the secrets of the Cenobite’s world. Before long, the Cenobites return and the scene is set for a power struggle over the realm.
Bigger in budget and scope than Hellraiser, Hellbound really is quite a beautiful film to look at. The combination of body horror, quasi-religious imagery, extreme gore and stop-motion surrealism really gels together to form a nightmarish vision not a million miles away from the hellish atmosphere of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. The idea of Hell being a labyrinthine series of corridors and cells was a masterstroke, playing into the bleak tone of both films (and also being a bit of a money-saver, no doubt), and the scenes in the asylum are as creepy and intriguing as films set in asylums usually are.
But the film does have problems, mainly of the narrative kind. The surrealism side of the mythology is brought to the surface more here, leading to the film being much more interpretive than it really should be. There are gaps in the script – largely due to hasty last minute re-writes when Andrew Robinson wouldn’t reprise his role as Larry – and you may find yourself scratching your head if you’re not fully invested in this universe and prepared to just let yourself absorb everything that’s being shown to you.
Overall though, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a great sequel to a classic film and doesn’t do it any harm at all. In fact – and don’t let this put you off reading about the rest of the series – it’s really as good as the franchise got as next time out there’s a remarkably noticeable shift in tone and style, and the series never really recovered after that. Still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Hellraiser and Hellbound make a unique double bill that, quite frankly, takes a huge dump on most other horror films from the last couple of decades, and when horror fans talk about this franchise being their favourite it’s usually down to these two early films.
As a side-note, the original intention of Hellbound: Hellraiser II was to have Julia take over from the Cenobites as the new mistress of the underworld but such was Pinhead’s popularity with audiences that the script was changed (again). So two critically and commercially successful films in and Pinhead was emerging as the new face of modern horror, and by the time Hellbound had found its audience a certain Mr. Krueger was beginning to fall out of favour with horror fans not too happy with his jokey new direction. All looked well for the next chapter then…
Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (Anthony Hickox, USA, 1992)
A couple of years into the 90’s and horror was starting to experience a little bit of a backlash. The OTT gore and horror comedies of the past few years were starting to look a little stale, and it seemed that audiences were starting to look for something a little more sophisticated. The Silence of the Lambs had won five Oscars in 1991, proving that a film about a cannibal serial killer could be done properly and appeal to a mass audience, and if you wanted something a little more extreme but done without juvenile humour then Hellraiser and its solid sequel were readily available on VHS. But they were a few years old now and it was about time to set Pinhead free to wreak havoc on Earth.
And that’s sort of what he does. Having been sort of separated into two different entities – his human side being Captain Elliot Spencer and Pinhead being the demonic side – by the battle with Channard in Hellbound, the demon Pinhead (Doug Bradley) is now trapped in the pillar of souls that was seen emerging from the mattress at the end of that film. Brought from a mysterious seller by malicious nightclub owner J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt), Pinhead soon makes his presence known when Monroe spills blood on the pillar after getting bitten by a rat. Meanwhile, reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) is following up a story after seeing a young man get his head pulled apart by chains that came from a mysterious puzzle box, a puzzle box that Pinhead is desperate to get his hands on so he can never be sent back to the Cenobites realm and can stay here on Earth.
It sounds like a more straight-forward plot that either of the previous two films, and it is, but the Hellraiser universe wasn’t built on slick, straight-ahead thinking. We’re now out of the UK for the first time in the series and we also get a heavy metal soundtrack to accompany the more lavish production – a trend that would come to fruition in the decade ahead – that although pretty decent in itself – Armored Saint and Motörhead to name but two of the names on there – doesn’t seem to lend itself to the universe that Clive Barker had set up five years before. Put it this way, Clive Barker himself directed the video for the song ‘Hellraiser’ by Motörhead and it has more of the classic Hellraiser feel than the whole of this film.
It isn’t that Hell on Earth is a bad film per se, it’s just that unfortunately it followed two films that pretty much re-defined mainstream horror and the makers didn’t really have a clue what to do next. The list of flaws is pretty extensive – the acting, the script, the CGI morphing effects, the fact that it all falls apart quite embarrassingly by having a Cenobite that throws CD’s like ninja stars – but the most glaring reasons that the film fails are the total lack of atmosphere and the converting of Pinhead to generic horror movie slasher. That’s right – at one point in this film the character who has spent the previous two films basically not moving and simply commanding evil deeds to happen now resorts to snarling like he’s constipated and trying to kill the film’s heroine with a knife.
Granted the character is slightly different as this is supposed to be the demonic Pinhead, devoid of humanity and not constrained by the rules of the Lament Configuration box, but to make him like Hannibal Lector in Hannibal is laughable. Add to that the obviously more expensive – i.e. not as effective – make-up job (and possibly the fact that Doug Bradley may have been a few pounds heavier) and our regal Pope of Hell was starting to look a little bloated and not quite so terrifying. There was also a lot of dialogue creeping in that was starting to sail quite close to the precipice named ‘wisecracks’.
In an attempt to spread its appeal to a wider fanbase by diluting the darker, sado-masochistic elements and smoothing out the rough edges (which were a part of the appeal of the first two films), Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is a lazy, sub-par effort designed to appeal to the 90’s MTV generation who were growing tired of Freddy and Jason and their out-dated antics. In truth, if this film had arrived two years earlier it may have found its place amongst the Freddy-worshipping hordes and might have been better received, but the 90’s was a tough time for horror and CD-throwing, fire-breathing, camera-headed Cenobites that resembled bad Star Trek villains had no place in this franchise for the hardcore and were largely ignored by the mainstream movie-goers of the day. Much like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Hell on Earth was a transitional film that was an attempt to push its main antagonist in a more accessible direction. But unlike Dream Warriors, this film forgot where it came from and veered too far from its source material, ending up in some sort of iffy sequel limbo. Viewed as a curiosity it kills an hour-and-a-half and is better than the worst Elm Street sequels but after the first two films it simply wasn’t good enough. So where next?