Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Completist Guide to the Hellraiser series (1987-2011) part 1

Hellraiser (1987)

I've got to confess I was never a huge fan of the Hellraiser films. I had a friend as a teenager who loved them and made me a copy of the first four (on one VHS tape!) in the hopes of making me a fan too. At the time, I was massively freaked out by horror films and I remember watching them in 10 minute installments to make sure I didn't get too scared (Note: I've since manned up significantly). Anyway, I remember thinking they were okay but alternated between being ridiculously over-the-top and ploddingly dull. Fast forward several years and it turns out they've made nine of these films! So I thought the time was ripe to give them another go and watch them all from the beginning. Surely, if they made nine entries there must have been something I missed? No?

So the first film sees Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins play Larry and Julia, a middle aged couple who move into an old house with their daughter Kirsty. The house used to belong to Larry's brother Frank and everyone assumes that he has either died or gone missing. But the truth is far darker. You see Frank was a thrill seeker and picked up an ancient puzzle box while he was on his travels. He brought it back to his house and managed to solve the puzzle, however by solving the box it opened a portal to another dimension and a bunch of sado-masochistic beings called Cenobites tore his body (and soul) apart! After Larry accidentally cuts his hand and bleeds on the floor where this all happened Frank starts to be reanimated and he forces Julia, who he had an affair with long ago, to get him more blood so he can become whole again.

Hellraiser is actually adapted from Barker's own novella 'The Hellbound Heart' that he wrote in 1986. The storyline of the film is actually quite strong (far greater than any other entry in the series) and you can tell it's been adapted from a book. This isn't just a silly gore movie, there's some thought-provoking themes in the background. Barker's clearly trying to draw parallels between the sado-masochistic Cenobites and Julia's destructive (and submissive) affair with Frank. The part where a partially reanimated Frank forces Julia to lure several lonely businessmen back to her house and kill them is creepy not for the gory deaths but for how easily Julia agrees to do it. It's the lengths that she'll go for Frank (and the controlling influence that Frank has over her) that are most disturbing elements of the film.

Considering Hellraiser was Barker's first time directing a film he did a pretty solid job. I only really had two issues with the whole film. The first was that the violence and gore is quite frequent and brightly lit and I cant help but feel that if he implied instead of showing, the film might have achieved a truly terrifying atmosphere. The second was the finale where the Cenobites, having claimed Frank's soul, start inexplicably going after Kirsty (something which doesn't happen in the book), not only felt a contrived way to give the film an action-packed ending but it also contained some shoddy effects that really take you out of the film. The thing is Barker's writing is known for his long graphic descriptions but I don't think it works to always just translate them direct to screen. The mediums are very different and need handling in different ways.

The best part of the film is definitely Doug Bradley's portrayal of the lead Cenobite, Pinhead. He's a truly iconic cinematic monster. So weird, so bizarre, so creepy. Surprisingly, given that he's the only character on the film's poster, Pinhead is actually used very sparingly in the film and has only handful of lines. However each appearance and each line of dialogue is expertly delivered by Bradley. There's very few actors who could pull off a line like "We'll tear your soul apart." In fact all of the Cenobites are really well-realised. The lack of explanation of who they are and why they are linked to the box only add to the film's intrigue.

The acting by the human characters varies a bit. Clare Higgins does a great job of Julia. She's really the lynch pin of the film and succeeds in slowing shifting the character from innocent housewife to cold hearted murderer. Ashley Lawrence is okay as Kirsty. Her character, even in the book, seems to purely be there to solve the mystery so there's not a whole lot for Lawrence to do with the role but scream and act shocked. Andrew Robinson turns in a bit of a hammy performance as Larry. I think that's because Robinson is far better at playing villains (see: Dirty Harry) and he's hampered for the most part having to play Larry as such a nice guy. However when the final twist comes and Frank dons his skin to trick Kirsty we get a great 10 minutes.

All in all Hellraiser is still a very good film that deserves it's iconic status. It's a not a perfect film by any means but it's an important entry in the horror genre. The dated special effects have somewhat diminished it's power but some of the practical gore will never be topped. The shot of Frank reanimated was stunning and once you see that final shot of Larry/Frank getting pulled apart by hooks you'll never forget it!


Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Hellraiser was a smash hit at the box office and it was inevitable that sequel would happen but I'm surprised they turned one around so quickly. Barker stepped down from the directing chair and made way for Tony Randel, who would go on to do the live action anime Fist of the North Star in 1995. In a lot of ways the directing doesn't feel that different from the Barker's style, the only difference is the film seems even more stylised (and divorced from reality) than the previous entry - with an abundance of cheap set work that at times threatens to derail any sense of terror.

The story of Hellbound picks up directly from the previous film with Kirsty being questioned by police a few days later. She has been assigned to a mental asylum and though she tries to explain about the Cenobites and the puzzle box, no one believes her because the only evidence left behind was a bloody mattress. Unbeknownst to her, the head of the asylum, Dr Channard (a devilish Kenneth Cranham) actually does know about the box and he has been secretly been researching it for years. He ends up using a autistic patient, Tiffany, to open the box and, in doing so, resurrects Julia. Together they use the box to slip into the Cenobites realm (aka Hell) and Kirsty follows hoping to find her father.

As mentioned the film is much larger in scope than the previous film; we're no longer confined to a small house. The characters travel to Hell itself - which resembles... a large maze of corridors! It's kind of a let down and worked much better in the first film where the Cenobites just appeared out of nowhere. One of the problems with Hellbound (and the series as a whole) is that the makers consistently went out of there way to explain things too much. I don't think we really needed to know that Pinhead used to be a WWI soldier. I don't think we needed to see what Hell looked like. I don't think we needed to know that Hell was ruled over by a floating rhombus called Leviathan. The more we see and the more explanations we get the less scary something becomes.

The major character addition to the film is Dr Channard who is one of the best elements of the film. British actor Kenneth Cranham excels in the role and is very creepy both before and after he gets turned into a Cenobite. Like the first film, it's his obsession with the box (which admittedly is rather poorly introduced) that makes him a truly terrifying villain. I defy you not to get chills when he exclaims, just before being transformed, "I want to see. I want to know." Unfortunately, towards the end he has to try and pull off silly one liners like "The doctor is IN" which don't work out so well. And the less said about his final 'battle' with Pinhead the better. Having made Pinhead such a powerful character in the first film it was a shame to see him turn back to being human and help Kirsty!

It's always been a popular thing with horror sequels to pick up directly from the last installment (see: Friday the 13th, Halloween) but I can't help but feel that it wasn't necessary for Hellbound to bring Kirsty and everyone else back. It feels too much like a reunion for the sake of having a reunion. The Hellraiser series as a whole definitely hangs on the idea that death is far from permanent but bringing back characters again and again diminishes their impact. I think Clare Higgins had already done everything she could with the character of Julia in the first film, we didn't need to see her come back to torment Kirsty a second time (though interestingly, Barker actually thought Higgins should be the figure head for the series and tried to get her to come back for the third film).

Really, if you think about it, Hellbound is much more of a gothic fantasy adventure (with gore) rather than a straight-forward horror film and I think that's the way you've got to approach it to really enjoy it. Yes, it looks silly and will rarely scare you but everything moves at a fast pace and doesn't leave you much time to think about it. I guess I've got to offer the makers faint praise for not just rehashing the original film and trying to make a continuation but they really shouldn't have gone all the way to Hell. Overall, Hellbound is an okay-ish follow-up if viewed under these conditions.


Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

The third film is usually always a difficult and tricky one for any franchise and Hellraiser III is no exception. In the intervening years between the second and third film, the original producers, New World Pictures, had closed and the rights were sold to Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films. At the time Dimension weren't the huge label they are today but still they decided to use their "influence" as producers over the film in order to try and make alterations to make the film more commercially successful than the previous one. This meant not only shooting it very cheap again (this time in the US instead of Britain) but also twisting the film's formula to better fit a horror film mould.

Hellraiser III again picks up from the previous film, only this time it ditches Kirsty in favour of a new protagonist, Joey (Terry Farrell), a TV reporter who is investigating the mysterious death of man in a hospital who seemed to be ripped apart by invisible chains. Meanwhile, the mysterious pillar that was seen rising out of the mattress in the last film has been mistaken for a piece of art and gets sold to Monroe, a sleazy club owner who puts it in his apartment. Before long the pillar comes to life and after devouring Monroe's latest girlfriend Pinhead gets reborn from it, only this time something's different. He's no longer reserved and stony-faced. He's now spouting one liners and causing all kind of mayhem. Turns out when he died in the last film his personality got split into the good and noble Captain Spencer and the evil, sadistic Pinhead. Now it's up to Joey to send him back to hell.

Clearly, the change in Pinhead was designed to give audiences a villain more in keeping with other franchises like Freddy Kruger and the Leprechaun. A wise-cracking bad guy who kills people in novel ways while spouting some witty one liners. Unfortunately, however much the film's storyline tries to justify the change (split personality, really?), it just doesn't work. It's too much of a shift. What made Pinhead truly terrifying in the original film was how emotionless he was. Having him say corny lines and smile significantly diminishes his presence. The big change is that Hellraiser III is really the film that bumps Pinhead up to being the major antagonist. When you think about it, he wasn't really the villain in either of the first two films.

Once again (in what will become a running theme in these Hellraiser reviews), you've got to sit back and accept that the franchise has evolved into something far sillier than the original film was in order to enjoy it. And there are a few fun bits here and there such as the new Cenobites that Pinhead creates are kind of enjoyable in a trashy way. The best being a guy who fires CDs out of his body. And Pinhead walking into a church and freaking out a priest was kind of cool. Unfortunately there's quite a lot of dullness to wade through to get to these little bits. Much of it is spent on Joey investigating Monroe's club and the puzzle box. At the very least Hellbound had a sense of pace, this film has none and when the action finally does kick in it's very lifeless. It's a sad state of affairs that the major action set piece of the film is the Cenobites chasing Joey down an empty city street blowing up cars around her to scare her. Exploding cars aren't scary!

The acting is pretty bad across the board. Terry Farrell is thoroughly wooden as Joey as is Paula Marshall who plays her sidekick Terri. Bradley does his best with the lines he's given but his Captain Spencer personality is very boring and Pinhead's spoiled (not least by the fact that they don't alter his voice to make it sound deeper). You know you're watching a bad film when plot exposition comes in the form of the lead character... having a dream. And the final battle in which Spencer and Pinhead re-merge is just a horrible cheap looking CGI effect and serves one of the lamest final battles I've seen in any film.

Overall, Hellraiser III is a pretty poor entry in the series (but we've got much lower to go). Even as a trashy horror it consistently fails. It's doubly disappointing because director Anthony Hickox's early film Waxwork, a fun little b-movie, showed a lot of promise. I think if the film had had a better director, who could give it a faster pace, the film could have been a good guilty pleasure.


NEXT TIME: Pinhead goes to Space and Beyond!


  1. Agree about the terrible visual fx on Hellraiser, but I can't say I complain about the make up effects work which was excellent, also I enjoyed the use of puppets for some of the resurrection sequences, pretty cool stuff there too. Agree, not Barkers best, but it was a hell of a way to start his career.

    I'm a fan of the second one, it is over the top and has some truly crazy visuals, but like you I hated some of the cheap looking sets, especially when they get to hell. Dr. Channard was a cool cenobyte, but I couldnt understand very well what the hell he was! Still, interesting just for that, Ive shown this movie to my friends, they always freak out.

    Yeah, this is where the series started to go down, but I think part III is still very watchable in my book. Even though they essentially turn Pinhead into a work of art for most of the film, the film does manage to entertain in my book.

    Part four well, that one has it's bits and pisses of coolness, but then we get laser guns...and a lot of things that simply shouldnt have been in a Hellraiser film.

    I had a chance to see Hellraiser Reborn was it? The latest one? Wow...what a terrible film, watching it was like torture for me. I do not recommend it unless you're into true pain and suffering...

  2. Hellraiser 9: Revelations. Yeah, unfortunately I did check that one out (just so I could say I've watched them all). It was a pretty bad movie but I guess it's appropriate given that the Hellraiser series is about torture and suffering. Can't think of a more painful film to watch!

    Yeah, I think my problem with Part III was that I hated Pinhead's "nice" alter ego Captain Spencer. It was cool to see Doug Bradley get a role without the make-up but I think they should have kept Pinhead's history vague. It's creepier that way.

    1. Hellraiser 9: agree, painful and embarassing film. It feels almost as if they were aiming for a reboot but failed horribly.

      Agree about keeping Pinhead a mistery, it would have been much better then humanizing him the way they did for part III.

  3. I have to agree with you for the most part, with the exception being that I really, really love part 2. You're right, it's more of a gothic fable rather than a horror film, but it just looks so cool, cheap sets and all. And Christopher Young's score just elevates it significantly. It's one of my favorite film scores to date. It's not perfect, especially the ending when the cenobites seem to be defeated so easily (what's up with that?!). But overall a great film with great makeup effects and awesomely quotable lines. Love these "Completist Guides" by the way! :) Keep 'em coming!!

  4. Yeah, I did give Hellraiser 2 a bit of a hard time, didn't I? I did like it, I was just disappointed in the direction they took the story. Compared to some of the later DTV sequels it's a masterpiece!

    Can't believe I haven't mentioned Chris Young's score in any of the reviews yet. It's absolutely perfect. So dark and gothic, it adds so much to the all the films' atmospheres.

    Glad you're enjoy these Guides, got a lot more coming this month!

  5. Nice overview and perfect for October! I've only seen the first Hellraiser and quite liked it. I agree about the lackluster special effects despite the great makeup and gore.
    I always though that Pinhead looked like a borg, and wonder if the Star Trek Next Gen production crew took some influence from his design.
    I enjoyed both Waxwork movies (first is better, second is funnier) so I can see why they would pick Hickox to direct the 3rd one since you noted the shift to a more comedic tone.
    I'm still surprised that this series spawned 9 movies (I know some were direct to video) and after 25 years there still may be more!
    Also I got up a banner linking to your blog on mine.

  6. Hey Chris, yeah the first film is pretty awesome. Great acting, excellent make-up and a solid story.

    The same can't be said for the rest of the sequels. They aren't essential viewing but it's interesting to watch them just to see the different directions the filmmakers took the franchise.

    There's a definite feeling in all the Hellraiser films that none of the filmmakers really had enough budget to fully realise the gothic grandeur that Barker wanted.

    Yeah, I'll have to get on reviewing the Waxwork movies at some point. They were kind of fun, just needed a bit of tightening.

    P.S. Cheers for the banner on your site. Much appreciated!

  7. Terrific write-ups. I understand your problems with 3, but I think that one has improved with age, mostly because it's so braindead silly that it's hard not to like. I can't wait to see what you think of Part 4. I tend to think it's a tad underrated myself.

  8. Thanks Mitch. Yeah, I think we'll be on the same page about Part 4 - it's so crazy ambitious I couldn't hate it if I tried. My review will be up soon!