Thursday 9 November 2017

"We have such sights to show you!" A look back at the Hellraiser film series

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the UK cinema release of Hellraiser. With the tenth film in the series, Judgment, still showing no signs of seeing the light of day, I've been looking back over the previous nine films.

Hellraiser (1987) - being slightly long in the tooth I did in fact attend a screening of this film on the first day of its UK theatrical release. It’s perhaps difficult to recapture in writing the impact of the movie on British cinema-going audiences at the time, particularly when it has since attracted a fair amount of criticism for its supposedly dated effects and overall clunkiness of direction. But at the time there was simply nothing like it being produced in western cinema in terms of gore, and indeed it was one of only a small handful of UK genre films brought out that year.

Unlike some other horror films of the period, this one didn’t focus on a group of teenagers being menaced by an audience friendly wisecracking supernatural villain. There are some gag lines in Hellraiser, but because of the relentlessly dark content they kind of hang in the air like a bad smell.

For those of you who don’t know the storyline, welcome back from Mars. Kirsty, a young girl, reunites with her father Larry and her stepmother Julia who have just moved into a house previously occupied by ultra thrill seeker Frank, Larry’s brother, with whom Julia had a torrid affair. Frank has gone missing but actually he’s trapped under the floorboards in the top floor of the house, a weird shrivelled corpse whose return to human form is triggered by receiving some of Larry’s blood in an accident. Partly revived Frank uses still besotted Julia to supply him with victims to bring him back to rude health, but it’s not long before four Cenobites (explorers from another dimension with a keen awareness of pain and suffering) who have been after Kirsty’s reconstituted uncle, arrive back on the scene keen to drag Frank, Kirsty, and anyone else they can get their talons on, back to their own dimension.

It’s been well documented how this still essentially British production was fiddled with by the US money men, who Americanised the feel (if not the locations) of the film to make it attractive for export. And yes there’s always going to be a ‘what if’ feeling as to the version audiences might have seen if first time feature director (and author of the story on which the film was based) Clive Barker was allowed, and given the spondoolicks to bring the intensity of his original vision to the screen. But there’s still enough low budget depravity going on (despite Christopher Young's stirring string score trying to convince us otherwise) to give us a strong whiff of the original intent.

Overpoweringly this is a film with little or no moral compass at all, where the viewer is given the choice of bad or badder for antagonist. I personally love the scene where the glamorous Julia – brilliantly played by stage and TV actress Clare Higgins - ‘seduces’ a lone, trouserless salesman in the house, with bloody Frank waiting on the sidelines for his human fix. It’s comic and frightening at the same time, and yes some of the rest of the film can stretch credibility as well as narrative coherence, but scenes like this show it to be a milestone in horror film making, far too good to simply laugh off.          

Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1989) - like the original film I saw this on first release at the cinema. In fact I attended the movie’s premiere at the National Film Theatre in London, which included a display of Bob Keen’s dead body dummies which feature in the film. Seeing the not particularly convincing effigies in close up immediately prior to observing them on celluloid wasn’t such a great idea. I remember coming away from the the Tony Randel directed sequel rather unconvinced and decidedly underwhelmed. Whereas the first movie had contained the mayhem in one location and kept things quite tight, Hellbound opened the story out and included elements that seemed to have strayed in from a science fantasy flick.

Time has been kind to Hellbound though. Some of the more extreme footage which was originally excised from the film has been put back (if you’ve seen it, most of the restored scenes are from the self-cutting patient scene) and it all moves at a fair lick, not leaving you much time to wonder what the dickens is going on. Hellbound takes places not long after the end of the first movie. Kirsty is being treated in hospital and her account of Cenobites and strange boxes is treated as hysteria. However Dr Channard (a game performance by Kenneth Cranham) is somewhat of an expert on the box, or the Lament Configuration as it’s formally known. He’s another of these seekers after pleasure and pain, rescuing the mattress on which Julia died at the end of Hellraiser and resurrecting her. Of course the newly reanimated Julia (Higgins again, clearly a glutton for punishment) is the same old double crosser she always was, and before you know it the gates of hell have opened and Dr Channard becomes a Cenobite.

Hellbound also gives us a little backstory on, and more dialogue for Pinhead (something the next sequels were to exploit, with diminishing results) as well as some budget-limited but still inspiring hellscapes, Burton-esque stop-frame animation and a massive Lament Configuration which gives off black light, rising up from an Escher like maze. It's all a bit silly but this time Christopher Young's score matches the action, and most of the actors deliver great performances. There were only 11 horror movies made in 1988, and it may be damning by faint praise, but I think Hellbound is one of the best.   

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) - never was a title more apt. Four years had passed since Hellbound and those of us hoping the Hellraiser franchise had dried up were in for a big disappointment. This was the last of the Hellraiser movies that I saw at the cinema and I forgot about it immediately after viewing. Watching it again all these years later I know why. Hellbound director Tony Randel was originally scheduled to direct it but was taken off the project shortly before shooting began, replaced by Anthony Hickox (who sandwiched this between Waxwork 2: Lost in Time and Warlock: Armageddon which tells you all you need to know).

Hell on Earth opens with JP, an art collecting nightclub owner who acquires a rather grotesque pillar like statue, containing the fused bodies of Pinhead and other unfortunates who got mushed up at the end of the second movie. Oh, and the Lament Configuration. Enter on the spot reporter Joey Summerskill searching for her big scoop. She knows she’s on to a hot story when she sees a guy in hospital get pulled apart by mysterious chains. Taking in homeless Terri (who also witnessed the guy exploding) she gets access to Terri’s boyfriend, the very same JP. Fast forward a bit and Pinhead gets resurrected – well initially only partly, delivering most of his Krueger-esque mocking lines while still stuck in the statue. Mr Head eventually makes it all the way out and stops off at the nightclub, bizarrely converting several of the denizens into Cenobites – CD the DJ becomes a lethal CD dispenser, and another has a bulky VHS camera fused to his bonce. No, me neither.

If all this isn’t dumb enough, Pinhead splits from his inner human (before his conversion he was Captain Eliot Spencer, a soldier seeking pleasure and etc etc) and the two of them have a dramatic last reel tussle. Ashley Lawrence very briefly reprises her role as Kirsty but Doug Bradley as Pinhead is the only other actor from the first two movies in this. Some of the effects are pretty decent but the script doesn’t so much come alive as crawl out of people’s mouths.

I’ll leave the summary of Hell on Earth to film guru Kev Lyons, who wrote of the movie: “the film itself is full of unlikeable people doing obscure things for no discernible reason.”

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) - the fourth film in the Hellraiser franchise, the last to get a theatrical release, was made four years after Hell on Earth. But most of it’s set in 2127 on the Space Station Minos. Yep, that’s right – Pinhead’s in space!

This one was directed by makeup wizard Kevin Yagher - his first feature directing credit - whose company Kevin Yagher Productions must have cleaned up nicely as they provide the bulk of the personnel in the credits. Actually, the on screen credit is one Alan Smithee, which as anyone knows is the name given when the real director either doesn’t want his/her name on the credits or has been removed by the production company. Apparently Yagher took his name off the production when Miramax recut the movie and asked for new scenes to be added which he couldn't commit to contractually. So it was actually finished by an uncredited Joe (Phantoms) Chappelle.

So we’re in space, and some guy has hijacked a space station, keen to complete an experiment the nature of which the audience only gets to understand towards the end of the movie. This guy is the last in line of the family who made the first Lament Configuration, back in, well that bit of the past where they still pomaded their hair. The maker of the box, Lemarchand, is an innocent toymaker working to a commission. The commissioner is not innocent, and he’s the one who uses the box in an arcane ritual summoning the first of the demons, Angelique. From that point on we follow the Lemarchand family through history as they remain linked to the box. The last of the clan (whose name has now changed to Merchant) is the hi-jacker and he feels that he can entomb the Cenobites and the box in the space station while the rest of the crew make a hasty retreat. But to do that he must release them first, which inspires about 25 minutes of that good old B movie standby, walking around in darkness looking for things.

If you’re reading this thinking this sounds like cobblers you’d be right, but in its incredibly cheap way it’s still better than Hell on Earth. The ‘historical’ scenes are as accurate as one of those episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but despite the ludicrous storyline and some pitiful performances, the effects work is way better than average (I noticed that Yagher had effects wunderkind Ed French on his team – a mark of quality) and there is at least an attempt to tell a story. Although apparently Yagher's version majored on the period scenes which Dimension didn't approve of, and Pete Atkins's original script, again changed by Miramax, favoured an anthology style approach, lost in the studio re-edit.

Cast wise Doug Bradley’s back as Pinhead, looking slightly jowlier than his 1987 incarnation – when Pinhead tells Lemarchand that he can’t die, he doesn’t comment that he can, and does, get older. Clive Barker was still directly attached to the franchise at this point (he was filming Lord of Illusions nearby and appeared on set a few times) but this film is mainly about the special effects, and barely passes the 80 minute mark. Very slightly better than expected given its troubled production history.

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) - the new millennium saw the Hellraiser franchise effectively rebooting itself. After the rights were purchased by Miramax for its Dimension company, and because of the nightmare of the previous instalment, the studio decided to go in a very different direction, and actively walk away from the established Hellraiser ideas. Pinhead and the Lament Configuration remain, but pretty much all the other elements are brand new. And to be honest after Bloodline that was probably very sensible, although Clive Barker hated the film. There was also the need to be economical with the production with only a $2 million budget.

In Inferno the publicly Christian director (and scriptwriter) Scott Derrickson has essentially made a modern morality tale, introducing us to Detective Joseph Thorne (played by David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer). Thorne is sort of a dirty cop, thinking nothing of pocketing the contents of a dead man’s wallet and hoovering up the nose candy on those late-night shifts. He’s also a bit of a sex addict, leaving his perfectly nice wife and child in the middle of the night to pick up hookers, whom he pays from the contents of that filched wallet – classy.

But when we first meet him Thorne’s investigating the scene of an apparent ritual murder, and what should be discovered in evidence but a certain box? Puzzling over it the box does its Lament Configuration thing of opening and re-arranging itself, but on this occasion the walls don’t come tumbling down and no army of Cenobites appear. Thorne seems to have had a lucky escape. Except that when he’s back at his desk after his night of sordid passion, he receives a phone call from the prostitute he just left, in the throes of being murdered. And we quickly understand that on Derrickson’s watch the impact of the open box is much more subtle, disturbing and long lasting, with Thorne discovering that a journey to hell can come in many forms.

Provided that you can cope with its deviation in tone (and with Pinhead’s inexplicable conversion to being a kind of moral guardian - although arguably the Cenobites held the moral high ground in the first film as well) Inferno is an interesting movie, although if it feels like a myth-based paranoia  thriller with tacked on Hellraiser bits, that’s because it was – Dimension had the script lying around and decided to make a Hellraiser movie out of it. The Inferno of the title is clearly a nod to Dante.

We spend most of our time with Thorne and his deteriorating mental state, and he’s pretty convincing. The Detective's visions borrow heavily from Adrian Lyne’s woozy Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and are on occasion quite nightmarish. The movie is a little slow at times and the ending rather trite, and the whole thing feels like a big moral slap in the face. But it’s good to see the Cenobites restored to be more threatening and a finale which doesn’t end with ‘good’ triumphing over ‘evil’ and this sets the series up for a very different future.   

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) - continuing with the rebooted approach adopted by Dimension films in the previous entry into the franchise Hellraiser: Inferno (wherein the Hellraiser themes are more hinted at than made explicit) Hellseeker also marks the first director credit for Rick Bota. Bota went on to helm the next two entries as well, Deader and Hellworld, with decreasing success, although apparently he originally favoured a more arthouse direction for the movies, so one wonders how much compromise was involved. A Director of Photography whose work before and since has largely been confined to TV, Bota’s skills are well suited to this shot on video movie which often looks better than its $3 million budget. It’s also a pretty good entry in the series - despite script rewrites on Carl Dupre's original draft - although I would disagree with many critics and fans that reckon this to be as fine as the second movie Hellbound, although I can understand the comparisons, in that both films centre on Pinhead as a flawed character operating under a complex set of rules.

The other thing that won fans over was the return of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, who was a last minute inclusion on the cast list. Now married, Kirsty and her husband are involved in a car accident at the start of the film, their vehicle plunging into a river. Trevor, her husband, manages to escape, but his wife dies trapped in the car. Investigating police scratch their heads after an investigation of the crash site shows no signs of Kirsty. Trevor increasingly falls under suspicion, particularly when it turns out that both Kirsty’s father and uncle Frank owned considerable fortunes that passed to her on their deaths, and would pass on to Trevor in the event of hers. Worse still, Trevor seems stuck in a world of terrifying visions full of Cenobite-type characters, and seduced at every turn both by strange forms and the more corporeal bodies of his female work manager and a neighbour. Trevor is unable to decipher what’s real and what’s a waking nightmare. Did he really conspire to kill Kirsty, and how real is the vision where he sees himself giving a distraught Kirsty a Lament Configuration box?

Hellseeker is a passable entry in the franchise, very much picking up on the paranoid themes of Inferno, and the end twist, with Kirsty returning to the film, is a welcome return to story strands of the first two movies in the franchise - it's a great revenge movie. Although the script was not originally conceived as a Hellraiser film, those elements feel less shoe-horned into the story than in Inferno. Dean Winters as Trevor is a good small screen actor and his talents are well utilised within the narrow confines of the movie’s production. And yes Doug Bradley does return to Hellseeker (as does the Chatterer Cenobite), his lines significantly more dignified than in previous outings - he even rewrote some in the final confrontation with Lawrence. I’m still not convinced that she is that great an actress, but that’s of little consequence as after this she disappears from the franchise completely. Although as we know from Bloodline Pinhead isn’t finally vanquished until 2127, so never say never!

Hellraiser: Deader (2005) - ok, up to now in my reviews of the Hellraiser franchise I’ve been broadly supportive of the various takes on the basic setup. But my patience is wearing thin with the ghastly Deader, the sixth sequel to the original movie. Doug Bradley was once quoted as saying that the Hellraiser movies were "very much an ideas series...The ideas...bubble under the surface. They rise to the top here and there, but they remain largely subtext." Now if that isn't a quality control get-out-of-jail-free card I don't know what is.

Filmed in Romania, where life (and camera crews) are cheap - it was a popular Dimension location - Deader features intrepid journalist Amy Klein who is sent on an assignment to Bucharest to investigate the cult of the ‘Deader,’ a kind of sex cult that seem to be able to raise people from the dead.  It’s not long before she discovers the Lament Configuration in the hands of a dead girl, and from then on in we’re treated to the now familiar scenes of Klein hallucinating various tableaux of death and depravity. Telling the story in this way only really works if you’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t, but because we’ve witnessed the same setup in both Inferno and Hellseeker all the guesswork is taken away from us.

As Amy Kari Wuhrer is a competent lead, who must have been paid in fags judging by the amount she smokes in the movie. But everyone else is just grumpy window dressing, and Doug Bradley, who finally makes his appearance as Pinhead over two thirds into the movie, looks bored rigid.

Like the previous Dimension Hellraiser films, Deader was based on an existing script which had fright flick elements added to it, but with much less success than either of its two predecessors – it makes no sense and the individual elements are really uninteresting.  Admittedly Bota’s direction makes the best out of some very flimsy material but it’s the first in the series to evoke boredom.

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) - the third and final of the Rick Bota directed Hellraiser movies, this uses the director's by now trademark 'oh so it was all a dream' storytelling techniques in extremis, ad nauseam, and generally way too much. Filmed in Romania back to back with Deader, this one introduces us to an annoying group of, ahem, teenagers, who we first meet at the funeral of one of their group. It seems that this lot have all been playing an on line game called '' (in a rather self reflexive Blair Witch 2 style move, the game opens with some music from the original film and a line of Pinhead dialogue). Even though it has resulted in a death by suicide, the group eagerly respond to an invitation to a Hellworld player party in an abandoned mansion on the edge of town. Cue endless scenes of supposedly debauched goings on with the cast shouting "Alriiiight!" a lot, until they're gradually offed, Saw sequel style, by someone who might be a Cenobite but actually turns out to be the dead kid's dad, eager for revenge. And it turns out there was no party after all, it was all a collective dream induced by the dad who has drugged them all and buried them alive as punishment. Cordonniers, n'est pas? 

Hellworld once again was based on an existing script, but this time the 'Hellraiser' elements are so tenuous as to be totally superfluous (Pinhead drifts in and out looking even more cheesed off than in Deader) and the original story is so poor it retains absolutely no interest for the viewer. One or two inventive deaths and the presence of Lance Henriksen as avenging dad cannot make up for the paucity of ideas and generally tired air of the whole thing.  While it is admittedly impressive to look at, belying its obviously slender budget, it's a poor swansong for Doug Bradley who wisely chose not to return for any of the future films in the series - to date anyhow. After completing all three of his Hellraiser movies, director Bota would subsequently sensibly confine himself to TV work

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) - a further six years elapsed before someone had the cojones to resurrect the franchise, and the honour went to Victor Garcia, director of the lamentable Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007), a sequel of sorts to the already unwanted 1999 remake of the original 1959 movie. Ghastly as that film was, it's a minor classic next to Revelations. An additional fact tells us that the story for this one was written by Gary J. Tunnicliffe, best known as make up supervisor on all the Hellraiser movies since Hell on Earth. Nice career change Gary! To be fair he had also written the stories for several of the Hellraiser spin off short films, but space and my mental health forbids their coverage in this article.

So what's this one all about? Two male friends, Steven and Nico, venture out into Mexico, one seeking extreme thrills, the other tagging along in order to get laid. Nico is the dangerous one (he kills a prostitute 'by accident' in a toilet) and in the course of his pleasure seeking acquires 'the box.' Before you know it, he's been stripped of his skin by Pinhead, requiring supplies of fresh girls, supplied by Steven, to help him regain his human form. All this of course directly references the events in the first and second films, but without any of the motivation or logic. Fed up with the time it takes to do this, he kills Steven and borrows his skin, walking back into the bosom of his family. Having been missing for some years they are initially pleased to see him home, but then start to smell a rat as 'Steven' goes all home invasion on their asses. This is of course the first of the Hellraiser movies not to feature Doug Bradley - his stand in/replacement looks a bit like Andy Bell of Erasure fame, only with more nails in his face. Apparently the film was made by Dimension in order contractually to retain the rights to the characters, which is why it feels lazily made, poorly acted and barely 75 minutes long.

So thirty years later, what will become of the tenth entry in the series, Hellraiser: Judgment? Written and directed by Gary J Tunnicliffe, the film has apparently been completed, but has not to date seen the light of day. Apparently Dimension were originally considering a complete reboot, but decided on a sequel instead. Form an orderly queue horror hounds.


  1. Wonderful stuff David, and particularly good for this reader who hasn't seen any of the films beyond the third installment. I know what you mean about the original being something fresh and exciting upon its release. I remember seeing it on VHS 1988, when I was just 11years old, and thinking it was dirtiest Horror film I had seen at that point. I think it was Clive Barker who once said that Suspiria was what you imagined a Horror film was like when you were too young to see them, and that was certainly the case for the original film. I really enjoy Christopher Young's score too - and as much as I like Coil's rejected themes for the film, I couldn't imagine Hellraiser without the Young score - it certainly elevates the film to another level. I had a hope that Arrow might have found the original dialogue tracks when they were preparing their Hellraiser boxset but not so, or at least there was nothing useable, but at least we can hear Sean Chapman's own voice in the likes of Made In Britain, and he's particularly good in that...

    As for Hellbound, I do enjoy it very much despite its shortcomings. I remember Shock Xpress savaged the film, comparing the Labyrinth set to something seen in a bad Lucio Fulci film, but I can overlook such things. The first half of the film I think is especially good and I do like Channard's occult ephemera in the scenes at his study - a picture of Aleister Crowley, books of magick and so on. For years all I knew of the film was the BBFC sanctioned version and for years of I dreamed of seeing the uncut version - Steve C.'s In The Flesh fanzine did a piece on the excised scenes and it was truly mouth-watering stuff, and happily when I did get round to seeing the uncut version, it didn't disappoint...

  2. Thanks Wes. I haven't been brave enough to tackle the most recent one yet.

    If you can get hold of it, I recommend buying 'Dead or Alive: British Horror Films 1980 - 1989.'It's a survey of all Brit horror (and borderline) films from the decade ( a kind of response to the seminal 'Ten Years of Terror' book), put together by Darrell Buxton, one of the great unsung writers on everything horror. The book contains a spirited defense of HELLBOUND elevating it, in the author's eyes, to one of THE great horror movies of all time. Controversial! If you're on Facebook, the book page is here and you can DM Darrell to get a copy - if there are any left. My review of Richard Stanley's HARDWARE is also in it: