The Series Project: Hellraiser
Film article by: Witney Seibold
Like most long series of films, this is the tale of a gradual weakening.
As a teenager, I became intensely interested in the novels of Clive Barker. I felt that Barker’s liberal uses of gore and sex, mixed with his original brand of pop spirituality was a bracing and mature change over that other hack, Stephen King. I was quick to consume any- and everything he did, from novels to plays to paintings to films. I was even lucky enough to be in the test audience for his 1995 film “Lord of Illusions,” which, for about a week, was my favorite film of all time.
Eventually, like many things from adolescence, my enthusiasm for Clive Barker’s books waned, and I moved on to books written before I was born. I still, however, have a great deal of enthusiasm for Clive Barker’s 1987 directorial debut “Hellraiser.” I feel that “Hellraiser” is a great, visceral horror film which not only has a solid and enduring mythology, but deals with sexual horror and the powers of lust in a believable way. I wrote an extended essay on the first two of the “Hellraiser” films already, and they can be found on this very site at the following address:
My love of the first two “Hellraiser” films left me with such a strong sense of lingering hope, that I bothered to watch all six of the other “Hellraiser” sequels (made to date), hoping that the magic would somehow be recaptured. I’ll say this right away: the first two “Hellraiser” films are still amazing. The rest are all mediocre.
Here is the mythology of the “Hellraiser” universe:
A mysterious puzzle box, when solved, calls into being a group of supernatural sadomasochists called cenobites. The cenobites briefly offer the solver of the puzzle box the ultimate sensual experience: they organize his body so that pain and pleasure are indivisible, and torture their charge to death. They then return to the realm where they came from, presumably Hell, with the soul of the one they tortured.
This is not the fire-‘n’-brimstone Hell of the Bible, but a place made of stone archways, shadows, and wet, fleshy things lurking around every corner. It is a Hell born of the body, and not of the spirit.
The puzzle box remains on Earth in a constant cycle of tempting the lusts and obsessions of the living. The cenobites seem to enjoy their job, but are largely stone-faced.
The first four “Hellraiser” films were released theatrically, and the following four were released only on home video. I will only give a cursory description of the first two films, as I have written at length about them already.
American Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) has moved back to England with his second wife Julia (Claire Higgins) where he once owned a home. The two of them discover that Larry’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), has been squatting there. Julia once had an short but intense affair with Frank, and Frank is depicted as a sweaty, sexual hedonist in flashbacks. Never mind that he looks more like rough trade.
Indeed, in the film’s prologue, we see Frank solving the mysterious puzzle box, and being dragged, in pieces, into Hell by the cenobites (led by Doug Bradley, who will later be nicknamed “Pinhead” for the nails driven into his skull). He did, however, leave behind a small trace of himself: a strange pulsating organ under the floorboards of an abandoned room.
Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry’s daughter, hates Julia, and is trying to make it on her own in London. She has a job in a pet shop. She is going to serve at the film’s heroine.
When Larry cuts his hand, and accidentally bleeds where Frank was dismembered, Frank manages to grow back. The rebirth scene is a triumph of special effects, and is simultaneously icky and beautiful.
Julia discovered the now-skinless husk of Frank (now played by Oliver Smith), and he convinces her to lure victims into his mouth, in order that he may suck out their fluids, grow his skin back, and have sex with her again. I’ve done some pretty embarrassing things in order to get some nookie, but luring men to my skinless lover is not one of them.
Eventually Kirsty discovers Julia and Frank’s plot, and goes slightly mad when she sets eyes on the skinless Frank. She escapes with the puzzle box, is committed, solves the box in the mental institution, and is confronted by the cenobites. She offers to tell them where Frank is in exchange for her soul. The cenobites, in a surprising show of good faith, agree to this, although not without first threatening to tear her soul apart.
Meanwhile, impatient, Frank and Julia have killed Larry and taken his skin right off his bones. They do get to have sex. Kirsty finds them, and is briefly duped by the skin switcheroo thing, but the cenobites know better, take Frank back to Hell, kill Julia, and attempt to take Kirsty as well. Kirsty solves the puzzle box in a crumbling mansion, and they cenobites are sent back. The box is flown away by a strange winged demon, and the cycle of terror (presumably) will continue.
Strong, gory, with wonderfully rubbery and bloody special effects, “Hellraiser” remains a tentpole of the genre.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Directed by Tony Randel, this 1988 sequel amps up the gore, and really amps up the surreality. We are following the same characters, but now Kirsty is back in a mental hospital. The hospital is run by a creepy brain surgeon named Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who is obsessed with the way the brain works (he is seen drilling into a patients brain in his first scene), and also with a certain puzzle box that he has heard about. He feels that if he can solve the puzzle, he will know what powers there are in the universe. Or something. His obsession is powerful, but unclear.
He finds the mattress where Julia died in the first movie, uses an insane patient of his to get some blood, and, lo and behold, Julia, skinless (and played by Deborah Joel), grows out of the mattress. Dr. Channard then begins to lure women to Julia the same way Julia lured men to Frank in the first film. Julia grows her skin back, and is played by Higgins again.
Eventually, Dr. Channard employs the puzzle-solving skills of a mute patient of his named Tiffany (Imogen Boorman, one of my first celebrity crushes) to open the puzzle box (which he had all along), and open the doorway to Hell. Our cenobite friends appear, but do Tiffany no harm. Dr. Channard is led into Hell by Julia, where he is lured into a torture chamber that will eventually transform him into a cenobite himself. Yes, cenobites, it turns out, are altered humans whose own obsessions are somehow on the same wavelength as Hell.
Kirsty, meanwhile also ventures into Hell to rescue a man who she thinks is her father, but turns out to be Frank. Kirsty and Tiffany team up, are confronted with nightmarish images, attacked by the Channard cenobite, and eventually have a duel of sorts with him. Channard manages to destroy the other cenobites (we see what they looked like before they were ghoul-ified), but is undone by the innocence and cunning of Kirsty and Tiffany.
In an epilogue, a team of movers find the bloody mattress where Julia grew, and a giant, odd, wooden statue, adorned with living images of Hell (and it looks realyl cool). It’s a chilling ending, even if it doesn’t make any sense.
I like “Hellbound” a lot. I like its special effects, its unhinged story, and its frequent dips into nonsensical, surreal territory. After this, though, the series will kind of take a plunge. As we see in…
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
Anthony Hickox (the “Waxwork” films, and the “Warlock” sequel) directs. All the previous characters are gone, except for the clear monster of the series, Pinhead. Also, the mythology has changed a lot. Rather than being summoned out of Hell to sate the lusts and obsessions of the living, Pinhead now wishes to escape Hell entirely to do as much harm as he can to humanity. No longer a treatise on the human mind, the series takes its first bold step into mindless slasher junk.
We are introduced to aspiring reported Joey (Terry Farrell from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). She is investigating the mysterious death of some guy who was torn apart by magical meathooks. You read that right. Her investigation leads her to Terri (Paula Marshall), a pretty young Goth type, and the two of them, after some pseudo-sapphic tête-à-tête, soon discover the puzzle box among the dead man’s possessions.
Meanwhile, the statue we saw at the tail end of the second film is now made entirely of clay, has Pinhead’s face on it, and has made its way into the boudoir of a douchey club owner named J.P. (Kevin Bernhardt). J.P. seduces young women, has unprotected sex with them, and abandons them. When a woman’s blood accidentally gets on the statue (!), Pinhead is partly revived (never mind that his human form was killed in the last film), and is able to talk to J.P. and convince him that he should be unleashed (“There is no good, there is no evil, there is only flesh.”).
J.P. gets Terri to swing by (they knew each other), and Terri is fed to the statue. Pinhead breaks free and wreaks havoc. Pinhead makes some cenobites very quickly out of a camera, a CD player, and a cocktail shaker. I’m not making that up. The CD-chucking cenobite is pretty ridiculous. In the previous films, the cenobites discarded their old identities to become monsters. In this one, they can still have intelligent conversations with people they recognize.
Eventually there’s some rigmarole about Pinhead confronting his old human self, a WWII soldier named Captain Elliot Spencer, and there are some stupid scenes of the two of them arguing and physically merging. I’m not sure how this works. When Pinhead was killed, did his human soul go to Hell, where he could confront the Pinhead body…? I dunno.
Joey solves the puzzle box again, and all the cenobites return to Hell. She hides the box in the wet concrete of a building’s new foundation, recently poured. The final shot of the film is of the completed building, now emblazoned with images of the puzzle box. Is the building the new puzzle? Dunh-dunh-DUNH!
This is not a good film. The premises are all changed, the motivations are all different, and it’s not even very fun. If you do choose to see it, Be sure to rent the unrated version, as the rated version has slightly less blood, and way less nudity. If we’re going down the tubes, I at least want some breasts on the way down.
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
Special effects man and make-up artist Kevin Yagher directed this film, but had it taken away from him part way through, re-edited, and released as a film by Alan Smithee. This is not a good sign.
I’ll give Yagher this, though: he did try to get the old mythology back on track after all the muck of the last film. He tried to give the puzzle box its own story line which spanned centuries, and how it effected certain descendants of the man who originally built it.
The man who built the box was a French sculptor named Philip Le Marchant (Bruce Ramsay). Le Marchant gave the box to a Marquis de Sade-type rich man (Micket Cottrlel) who used it in an old Satanic rite (Yes, Hell is no longer a new and abstract place, but has looped back around to the traditional Satan/demon/fire/Bible stuff we started seeing in movies back in the late 1960s). The hedonist infused the box with its ability to open the gateway to Hell, killed Le Marchant, and was granted eternal life, not to a hot demon companion named Angelique (Chilean actress Valentina Vargas). His only condition is that he must do his demoness any favor she wishes, should she ever ask.
Fast forward to 1996, where we meet John Merchant (also Ramsay), the architect who built the building at the end of the third film. He is kind of milquetoast, but has a secret need to design these weird boxes. Hm…
Angelique finds this building, is able to scoop the box out of the concrete, and convinces a security guard to solve it. He does so, Pinhead is unleashed, and he transforms the demoness into an S&M cenobite. They have some entertaining conversations about the nature of Hell, and how it’s all about sex these days, and less about the old fire-‘n’-brimstone. I guess even Hell has its fashions. It’s during these conversations that Pinhead begins to declare that he is only interested in sex and flesh again, and attempts to make excuses for his incongruous behavior from the third film. He and the demoness find a pair of identical twin security guards, and merge them together into a really cool-looking monster.
John Merchant eventually discovers what’s going on, and finds a design to a second box that will close the gate of Hell once and for all. When he tries to confront Pinhead, he manages to send him back to Hell, but is killed in the process.
Fast-forward another 400 years, and Dr. Paul Merchant (also Ramsay) is living in a space station that he designed. He uses a robot to solve the box (no, really) and unleashes the cenobites. The entire station, though, is the anti-box spoken of earlier, and, even though there is some mayhem, the entire station manages to close around Pinhead, and destroy him one and for all. The end. The forces of Hell were undone by a space ship. Yes, the series bothered to go to space.
I understand that in the original cut of this film, events were presented chronologically, allowing a grander mythology to unfold. Producers took the film away from the director, though, recut it to have a prologue in space, added more mayhem, added more shots of Pinhead (can’t have a monster franchise without the monster), and generally made it a lot less understandable. I dug this film in 1996, but recognized how far the series had fallen. This was to be the last of the theatrical releases, damning the series to straight-to-video Hell.
Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
The straight-to-video films of the “Hellraiser” series follow a new story arc, and introduce a new mythology. This is not “reinvention.” This is “lazy writing.” The new arc is as follows: A slightly corrupt person discovers the box in some den of iniquity, solves it, and spend the rest of the film haunted by strange, abstract monsters that seem to be related to the plot, but probably aren’t. Pinhead appears at the end of each of these films, tells the main character what a horrible person they were, and how they have been in Hell this whole time. Yup, it’s that simple. The twist is always the same, and is not inventive. And yes, Hell is not about anything more than the old punishment/reward thing that we’ve known about since Sunday school.
Directed by Scott Derrickson (who recently did the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), “Hellraiser: Inferno” stars Craig Sheffer as a corrupt cop named Joseph Thorne who smokes, drinks, has too much sex, and is generally an asshole. I imagine they are tring to make him like the Bad Lieutenant, but he’s not nearly as much fun. He does, however, manage to solve the puzzle box early in the film, which he discovered in a dead buddy’s shed. He has nightmares of cenobite twin sisters who want to have sex with him, and a crawling head-and-shoulders monster that looks pretty neat.
The story follows Thorne as he goes to one place, watches a friend get killed, flees to the next place, watches a new person get killed, and so on until the end. Amongst all this, there is a series of grisly murders he is investigating, each one marked by a severed child’s finger with the fingerprint burned off. Hm…
Eventually, Thorne’s investigations lead him to the missing child. The missing child is… himself as a child! Oh no! The fingers were representative of Thorne destroying his own innocence! Gasp! Pinhead has been waiting for him! For Hell! This film is largely plotless, and morally simplistic! Suck!
Of the video-only “Hellraisers”, I think this one has the best production values and acting, even though much of the film is soupy, abstract razzmatazz. If you’ve come this far, there’s no need to go further. If you do insist on going further…
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
The selling point of this film is the reappearance of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, even though the film is largely about her new boyfriend Trevor (Dean Winters). Kirsty has had boyfriends in the past, but I didn’t mention them because they serve little-to-no plot function, and are rarely interesting characters. Trevor is no exception, and, unfortunately, he’s our protagonist.
Excuse me if I’m brief, but little of this film stayed with me: Directed by Rick Bota, “Hellseeker” is about Trevor giving Kirsty the puzzle box as a Valentine’s Day present. Or something. She is soon killed in a car wreck, and Trevor finds himself drifting more and more into a world of drugs and sex and iniquity. It’s not sexy sex, or exciting drug-use, though. It’s more like a Jack T. Chick version of sin and vice, i.e. clearly wicked and non-explicit.
Why is he drawn to these things, having previously been a stright-laced fellow? Perhaps Kirsty’s experiences in Hell rubbed off on him somehow. Perhaps when he solved the box (yeah, he solved the box), he was damned. Maybe he is being punished for all the evil things he always wanted to do. When Pinhead shows up and explain that Trevor has been dead this whole time, and has been in Hell, and is indeed being punished for sins he didn’t even commit while alive, the films ends.
Really, “Hellseeker?” We’re going to go to Hell, just because we occasionally want to do sinful things? We don’t even have to do them? Not even the most extreme of the Fundamentalist Christian groups have that sort of stringency. And now that divisive, dogmatic version of the church has spread into the previously amoral and comparatively philosophical universe of “Hellraiser.” Sigh.
Well, it can’t get much worse, can it?
Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Yes, as in the comparative form of “dead.”
Also helmed by Bota, this film follows Amy Klein, played by television actress Kari Wuhrer from “Anaconda,” and “Sliders” and many others. Amy is an investigative journalist. Funny how most of the protagonists of these later films only discover they are in Hell after some serious detective work. It seems to me, that if you don’t look, you’ll never discover you’re in Hell, and life will continue unimpeded. But that’s as may be.
Amy is investigating a death cult called the Deaders. The Deaders claim to be able to resurrect the dead, and each of its members has been ritualistically murdered and resurrected. This is a fine setup for any given low-rent supernatural thriller, so the inclusion of “Hellraiser” in this film’s title is almost incidental. Eventually, the cult’s leader Winter (Paul Rhys) forcibly inducts Amy in the cult. The rituals involve none other than our magic box.
And Yes, again, the film follows Amy as she discovers increasingly bizarre demon images around her, and that perhaps she may be dead and in Hell, yadda, yadda, yadda. There is one really cool scene in which Amy wakes up to find a rather large knife point sticking out of her chest. She spends a good deal of screentime trying to remove the knife from her back, even though she can’t reach it with her hands. She eventually backs into an open closet, closes the door on the knife’s handle, leans forward, and pulls it out that way. I liked the gory mechanics of this scene.
And, once again, Pinhead appears in the film’s finale to announce that by tampering with the Deaders, she is damned to Hell. The Deaders are all punished for messing with a badass like Pinhead. The appearance of Pinhead is becoming increasingly arbitrary. But it’s none more arbitrary than in…
Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
Also directed by Bota, “Hellworld” attempts to “reboot” the franchise a bit. This film takes a much more pat slasher stance, as it involves a group of teenagers who are picked off by baddies at a party. The “reinvention” comes in the form of self-awareness, as “Hellraiser” is now a film that the characters openly discuss, and Clive Barker is one of their favorite authors. It’s not clear how many of the sequels exist in this world, but I’m guessing we’re in a thankful parallel universe where the series stopped as part II.
The characters (a goody-goody, a jock, a nerd, a horndog, a gothy slut, all led by Katheryn Winnick) are invited to a “Hellraiser” themed party hosted by, of all people, the father of the boy they all accidentally killed a few years back. The father is played by Lance Henricksen. This party is in a secluded castle out in the middle of nowhere, and has a very complex party setup: Everyone can wear a mask with a phone number on it, and are all issued phones at the door. If you like someone (without having seen their face), you call the number on their mask, and sneak off to have sex.
This film is mercifully full of sex. We have on-screen blowjobs, dozens of breasts, and faked orgasms galore. It doesn’t necessarily add to the film, but it’s a relief after so much abstract evil in the previous films. In the basement of this creepy castle is a creepy lab full of creepy shit. Homunculi in jars, that sort of thing. Eventually all of our protagonists are stalked and kidnapped by actual cenobites lurking about the castle. We never explicitly see any of their deaths, which is weird.
Until we get to the big twist ending. It turns out, not all that surprisingly, that the Henricksen character has slipped all our heroes a powerful hallucinogen, which causes them to hallucinate the cenobites, so they can be in abject fear as he buries them all alive. He wants revenge for his son, you see. When two of our heroes manage to slip out of their drugged states (!) and flee, Henricksen also escapes the scene, avoiding the police.
So, let me get this straight. If the horrors were all hallucinations, and the entire party was imagined, that means there are no cenobites in this film at all! The entire connection to “Hellraiser” is imagined, and takes place in the real world. It’s as if the series is trying to sever all ties by shunting its monster back into the world of fiction. If this film were trying to be cinematically self-reflexive, this might be intriguing, but it’s clearly only trying to go for a cheap twist ending.
Oh, but, in another twist, it turns out there is a “Hellraiser” world after all. Henricksen escapes to a hotel room where he solves the box (which has been hiding out somewhere), and the real cenobites appear to him, and take him away. I like the way the cenobites look in this final scene. Their appearance implies that they’re back to their old tricks. But this little bone we’re thrown is too little, too late. I’m already disenfranchised with the franchise.
I like the small bits of philosophy the early films gave, and it cannot be denied that Pinhead and his ilk all look really fantastic. The dangers of lust and obsession are all real things, and the early films deal with their consequences in a very real fashion.
The third and fourth films may not be nearly as good as their predecessors, but at least make for some enjoyably junky horror flicks. The fifth through eighth films are not worth much of anything, as they repurpose the film’s central thrust to tell something a bit more irresponsible and far less intriguing. It’s like the screenwriters and directors didn’t really understand the themes of the original, and decided to do their own take with each outing (which is odd, as 6-8 were all directed by Rick Bota). This can be fine for something like “Tales from the Crypt,” but for something that has such a strong overarching mythology to start with, it’s just churlish.
Go back and see the first two. Only see the rest if you’re a mad completist like myself.