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Too Many Horror Films: The Hellraiser Theatrical Films (1987-1996)

October 2, 2011

I have seen too many horror films. These films include the first four entries in the Hellraiser series, all of which were released in theaters, and most of which are disappointing.

  • Dir. (Listed below by film)
  • Released by New World (I & II) and Dimension (III & IV)
  • Based on The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
  • Average Rating: ***

In 1987, Clive Barker adapted his novella The Hellbound Heart into the low-budget British horror film Hellraiser, which has since developed into an immense franchise. Was this little indie film deserving? Absolutely, since it is a solid UK spook flick and a far superior piece of cinema to anything that came afterward.

Larry and Julia Cotton move into the home formerly occupied by Larry’s brother Frank. What they don’t know is that Frank is still around…sorta. Soon, Julia is convinced by a skinless mess that used to be Frank, and he uses his former affair with her as leverage to convince her to help him regenerate. He needs human flesh to restore the damage done by hell…

But this is not just any hell. Rather than going with an established theology, Barker creates an all-new interpretation of the afterlife, a world of pain and pleasure reached through a mysterious little puzzle box. The guides to hell are the Cenobites, a group dedicated to experiences of the flesh. These amoral beings declare themselves as “angels to some, demons to others.”

This is an entertaining little film, and although the visual effects are rather unimpressive, the makeup and gore effects are excellent. But this movie does not succeed through splatter, but rather through gothic horror. The mood has more in common with a Hammer Dracula film than its Elm Street contemporaries. Ashley Laurence makes a great heroine as Larry’s daughter Kirsty, and Doug Bradley is haunting as the head of the sadomasochistic Cenobites.

A year later, Clive Barker decided to back off and allow Tony Randel (director) and Peter Atkins (writer) take over. The result was New World Pictures’s final entry in the series before Dimension snatched up the rights, Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

Moments after the ending of the original, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) finds herself in Dr. Channard’s (Kenneth Cranham) psyciatric hospital, trying to explain what happened to her to some skeptical detectives. Dr. Channard, a man obsessed with the occult, hears about the bloody matress of Julia (Claire Higgins), and formulates a plan…

Soon, the puzzle box is opened again, and Kirsty is roaming the Labyrinth with her new companion Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), dodging the Cenobites (led once again by Doug Bradley) and battling both Julia and Channard, the latter of whom will make a shocking metamorphosis.

The big problem with the movie is that it’s trying to be Halloween II and Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at the same time, and it just doesn’t work. The movie has some great moments, though, including a glimpse at the origins of Pinhead (and, of course, some memorable lines from said character). Also, the movie just tries to add so much mythology to the the Hellraiser mythos so quickly that it becomes a Highlander II affair. Even so, I somewhat recommend it for those who enjoyed the first movie.

Several years pass, and now Dimension Pictures takes over. Anthony Hickox takes over as the director, and Peter Atkins and Tony Randel return for the script. 1992’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth promises to expand the audience and turn the series into a competitive horror franchise, but at what cost?

The Pillar of Souls is purchased by a womanizing club owner (Kevin Bernhardt), and Pinhead (Doug Bradley) looks to strike a deal with him. At the same time, the alter ego of Pinhead, Captain Elliot Spenser (Bradley again), visits a reporter (Terry Farrell of Star Trek:DS9) for help in stopping the soon-to-be unbound Cenobite and bringing him back to Hell.

This entry could be seen as the commercialization of Hellraiser. Everything looks nice and shiny compared to the previous films, and the budget increase is obvious. Sadly, this also means that Pinhead becomes a Freddy Krueger-type character, and the new batch of Cenobites look not unlike the Borg from Star Trek: First Contact. This one is more jokey than the others, and it doesn’t really follow the rules, either. Still, it’s somewhat amusing…on par with Hellbound, if nothing else.

Surely, after the mediocre 2 and 3, there was nowhere to go but up, right? Wrong!!! Hellraiser: Bloodline is another classic film brought to us by Alan Smithee (the pseudonym for directors who want their names taken of the credits). This 1996 disaster was initially filmed by makeup effects man Kevin Yagher (responsible for Freddy Krueger’s visage in Elm Streets 2-4) and completed in ill-conceived reshoots by Joe Chappelle (who had already ruined his own film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, with ill-conceived reshoots a year earlier).

In the distant future (?), a man named Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) is interrogated after compromising the safety of his own space station (?). He soon reveals that the purpose of the station is to seal off hell and destroy the Cenobites (?), and lets us in on a little secret…he’s the descendant of the creator of the puzzle box, Philip L’Merchant (Ramsay again). Cue a flashback to the origin of the puzzlebox, and then another flashback to 1996, when John Merchant (Ramsay again!) built the Puzzle Box Building that we saw at the end of Hellraiser III. Yep, three storylines, telling the battle of the Merchant family against the forces of evil. Snore.

Not only is the premise absurd, but the whole BDSM angle is lost here. Pinhead is only interested in causing pain, while his new counterpart, Angelique (Valentina Vargas), receives scoldings for promoting pleasure. Right. This movie is rather short, but it’s still torture to get through, and not the hooks-on-chains kind of torture, either. The sad thing is that the name of Peter Atkins once again appears in the writing credits. What went wrong, man?

Bloodline was so incompetent and incomprehensible by the time it came out of its hack-job editing session that the director disowned it, but even the oft-bootlegged workprint suffers from a plot that was totally misguided. The Pinhead in Space angle was intended as a final act twist, but it would have still been silly even in that case. This entry killed the franchise’s theatrical potential, and it is recommended for true masochists only.

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From → Film Criticism

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