WARNING: Some seriously gruesome (but awesome) images accompany the article below.
Every so often, a pretty good horror movie comes along. Sometimes, that movie may get a sequel, perhaps even expand into a trilogy. If it’s lucky, it may spawn an entire franchise that shows no signs of slowing down or ever ending. Hellraiser was exactly that movie. It also got books, comics and all sorts of connected media. Originally conceived by Clive Barker (based on his novella The Hellbound Heart), Hellraiser was also written and directed by Barker, who then went on to give some input into a couple of the future films, though not all. It also gave birth to an infamous, terrifying character so well known in popular culture that you don’t have to have seen any Hellraiser movie in order to know his name and face: Pinhead, a.k.a the Lead Cenobite of the movies. Despite not being his given name, Pinhead was given the nickname by fans for obvious reasons, and it sort of stuck. From what I’ve heard, the gruesome torture that Pinhead brings down on his victims is so horrifying and grisly that it leaves audiences terrified and retching at times. Perfect for a horror fan such as myself. Let’s see if the series, or at least Pinhead, lives up to the reputation.
Director: Clive Barker
Clive Barker’s original absolutely hits the ground running. Thanks to a mysterious puzzle box and the death of a married woman’s bit-on-the-side, we are introduced to demonic creatures known as cenobites, specifically four of them: the Lead Cenobite (Doug Bradley, who will continue to play this role for the next eighteen years), the Chatterer Cenobite (Nicholas Vince), the Butterball Cenobite (Simon Bamford) and the Female Cenobite (Grace Kirby). Their whole existence is based around the extremes of pleasure and pain, something that makes for an insane narrative and fantastic visual effects, effects that are akin to films such as The Thing and The Evil Dead. Hellraiser has become an iconic cult classic and, as we are about to find out, spawned many more demonic offspring.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Director: Tony Randel
The next instalment does what most horror sequels do: provides some semblance of back story on the antagonist(s) from the first film. We’ve been introduced to the demons, now we’re introduced to the world they inhabit. Where Hellraiser put its focus on terror and gore, Hellbound attempts to give more depth to the cenobites whilst still retaining their fearsome look and campaign. One of the only survivors from the first film, teenager Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), has been placed in an institution immediately after the events of Hellraiser. Unbeknownst to her, the head doctor of the institution has an unhealthy curiosity about the puzzle box and its origins. Kirsty find herself going head to head with the doctor, as he unleashes all manner of fresh hell, including some familiar Hellraiser faces. Hellbound is just as gore-ridden as its predecessor, if not more so, this time adding in some classic stop-motion animation for some of the newer hell-creatures, but the story revolving around Kirsty at times becomes a bit of a bore. Understanding the cenobites is the most interesting (and terrifying) aspect. Between that and the you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-it carnage, Hellbound is worth the watch but not quite on the same level as Hellraiser.
Hellraiser: Hell on Earth (1992)
Director: Anthony Hickox
It’s unsurprising that a third film would dip in story. In Hell on Earth we see Pinhead make his way to Earth with the help of a naïve playboy. Our heroine in this story is Joey (Terry Farrell), a news reporter who happens upon a scene of bloody mayhem, causing her to investigate. If that sounds a bit random, that’s because it is. Other than a brief video that sees previous heroine, Kirsty, trying to explain what had happened, and Pinhead himself, there is nothing in particular that links this film to the previous two. There’s more of a focus on Pinhead himself, which is the saving grace of this film, as he is a very interesting character: his creation, his motives, his battle with his past self. On top of that, the gore and effects are just as jaw-dropping and entertainingly disgusting. At one point, some new cenobites are created via assimilated humans, and are reminiscent of Star Trek’s cyborg creatures, the Borg, who are terrifying in themselves. Overall a much weaker story than Hellraiser and only a little more so than Hellbound, but it’s Pinhead and the cenobites that keep things truly interesting.
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
Director: Kevin Yagher (as Alan Smithee)
So far we’ve had the cenobites on Earth, we’ve had them in their own hell dimension, and we’ve had them somewhere in between. Where else could we put them? Oh, how about IN SPACE. Number four in the series focuses more on the creation and function of the puzzle box, which we now know is called the Lament Configuration. Sometime in the distant future, the descendant of the toymaker who made the puzzle box is suffering the consequences of his ancestor’s involvement with the summoning of a demon via the LC. Consequently the box becomes the device that summons the cenobites. With a story that struggles to hold any interest, Bloodline feels just like one of those movies that expects to make a quick buck riding on a well-established franchise name. The only thing that stops it from getting a lower score is, once again, Pinhead, the cenobites and the make-up and special effects: slightly less gore-ridden than previous films, but still imaginatively designed overall. Pinhead still retains the only truly screen-worthy dialogue, and his assimilated humans are just as terrifying as ever. It’s just a shame about everything else.
Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Director: Scott Derrickson
With a script that wasn’t originally intended to be a Hellraiser movie, Inferno so far represents the bottom rung of the Hellraiser series. Playing out with a soundtrack and direction worthy of an extended episode of Law & Order (I’ll forgive Scott Derrickson, as everyone, even the writer and director of 2016’s Doctor Strange, has to start somewhere), Inferno follows a fairly corrupt cop as he comes across the now infamous Lament Configuration, unwittingly inviting hell into his shady life via nightmares, hallucinations and, of course, cenobites. With no particular point to the story and much, much less of the hellish creatures and gore that Hellraiser is known for, this instalment of the franchise is very disappointing. Considering how episodic the franchise has now become, this one would be worth a miss for anyone embarking on a Hell-a-thon.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
Director: Rick Bota
A slight (slight) improvement on the last, Hellseeker sees the brief (but disappointing ) return of Kirsty (reprised by Ashley Laurence), thus making this fifth instalment the first to have a direct connection to the original human characters since Hellbound (not including Kirsty’s brief appearance in Hell on Earth). Kirsty’s husband, Trevor (Dean Winters), is under suspicion since Kirsty’s disappearance after an accident in which their car nosedived into a river. After home videos reveal that Trevor had previously gifted Kirsty the Lament Configuration (a plot point that is disappointingly passed over) on their fifth anniversary, he starts to become tormented by strange hallunications and something like alternate timelines. Being a Hellraiser film (though, once again, with a script not originally meant to be a Hellraiser), you would go in expecting the standard amount of blood and guts, maybe a skinless body or two, but you would be very disappointed in this one. The least gory so far, and with probably the least amount of screen-time for Pinhead or any cenobite, this film seems to expect you to come for the gore but stay for the story. When I watch a Hellraiser movie, I come for the gore and I stay for the gore (but also Pinhead and the cenobites). Once again, however, Pinhead does get the best dialogue, even if his lines would amount to less than a page of script. His appearances and presence are also still as spine-shudderingly frightening as ever.
Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Director: Rick Bota
Despite having possibly the poorest title, Deader continues some sort of re-ascent for the series, slowly clambering back to something worth your time. Reporter Amy (Kari Wuhrer) is shown a video by her boss of what looks like a cult sacrifice, except the murdered person is brought back to life. Amy, at the request of her boss, tracks down the group responsible, and, as would be predictable, comes across that little box of mayhem, the Lament Configuration, and is pulled into the world of psychological terrors unleashed by the box. What probably gives this film a little something extra is Amy’s personal hell. Although a poorly written character at first, truth be told, improvements are made when her past mixes with the present. Still, there is less of the Hellraiser gore that I love to bang on about, but for the first time in a couple of films, the story distracts from that enough to let it pass. Pinhead takes more of a backseat, but still basks in glory whenever he is present.
Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
Director: Rick Bota
Something aimed more toward the modern (or at least mid-noughties) teenager with its younger cast (including a pre-Hollywood, baby-faced Henry Cavill), Hellworld is more akin to the Saw movies in terms of its production design and some aspects of the story. Five teenagers obsessed with a Hellraiser-based online game named Hellworld (somehow the mythos has become THAT well-known in its own fictional universe), a game that caused another of their friends to commit suicide, are invited to a secret Hellworld party. Exploring that familiar theme of pleasure versus pain, each character separetly suffers some kind of psychological and physical torment at the hands of either Pinhead or another cenobite. Now that the series appears to have become consistently story-based than reliant on visuals and shock tactics, it’s easier to stop expecting to see the extremes originally offered by Hellraiser and Hellbound and let the narrative take over. Hellworld offers something not exactly original but certainly a little more cohesive and easier to swallow than Bloodline, Inferno or Hellseeker.
Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
Director: Víctor García
According to IMDb and Wikipedia, Revelations was a rush job so Dimension wouldn’t lose the rights to the franchise, which is an insult to the original creation, quite frankly. And boy, does it show. With an average rating of 2.8/10 and Doug Bradley relinquishing his role as Pinhead due to an unpolished script (to put it nicely), this next step in the series follows two teenage boys as they have a drink- and lust-fuelled trip to Mexico, a trip which brings them across the Lament Configuration, naturally. After they’ve been gone a year, their parents meet to discuss the disappearance. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and upon the reappearance of one of the boys, things start to come to light. The characters are all pretty two-dimensional, no one particularly standing out. The newer Pinhead (played by Stephen Collins Smith and voiced by Fred Tatasciore) is not nearly as effective as the original. He’s bulkier, more expressive in his face and has an angry tone to his voice, which is ultimately much less terrifying than a stoic, slimmer Pinhead. There is some of that classic graphic gore and violence that Hellraiser is known for, so for me that saves the film from being a 1/5, but it’s still not enough to consider this a decent entry into the franchise.
Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)
Director: Gary J. Tunnicliffe
It’s been thirty-one years, but here we are at the latest and most difficult to get hold of instalment of the franchise. In fact, it’s so difficult to track down that I cannot find it anywhere, physically or digitally, at least not in the UK (possibly something to do with Dimensions’ parent company, The Weinstein Company, and everything that’s been going on with Harvey Weinstein). Judging by the trailer, which features a glimpse of the Lament Configuration, it doesn’t look too bad. It looks very modern, very updated, so much so it almost looks like a video game, along the lines of The Evil Within or the more recent Resident Evils. Pinhead is a bit different in looks (because it’s still not Doug Bradly anymore, sadly) and voice (deeper, more artificially modified), but seems just as terrifying as ever. It certainly looks worth a watch, if only to see how the mythos has developed since Revelations. If it has developed at all. If I should ever manage to see this latest instalment, I will add it here.
Not all popular films that are pre-2000 are in need of a remake or a reboot. Hellraiser, however, is probably one of those series’ that could use it, if only Dimension would let the rights expire so someone else can have a go. After making my way through the franchise I feel there is SO much there to work with, so much story, history, legend. Pinhead is one of the scariest fictional characters not only in the horror genre, but in cinema. There is so much more he and his cenobites could do, and so much more depth to be had from his/their victims, the protagonists and their lives overall. Hellraiser really set up something special, and Hellbound made an admirable attempt to keep it going, but then it all just started to unravel and fall apart. Future attempts to pick it up again were also admirable, for the most part, but just couldn’t quite get that same reaction again. With the right director and screenwriter (someone get Barker on the phone, PLEASE), Hellraiser could be revived in such a spectacular fashion and easily return to the dark realm of sterling horrors, putting Pinhead right at the top again. (As long as he can be played by Bradley again. Please.)