Feature: The Hellraiser Franchise: An Evaluation

Picture a pale bald man with an array of sharp pins sticking from his face, wearing a leather-clad gown and clutching a mysterious square box – and you will know that this has become an iconic slice of horror imagery. Obviously horror fans know this S&M adoring rejectee from the Blue Man Group as Pinhead – the leader of a sect of extradimensional beings known as Cenobites who come to Earth through a puzzlebox (or The Lament Configuartion to series fans) to harvest the souls of the planet’s most hedonistic inhabitants.

Created by Clive Barker and first featuring in his 1986 novella, The Hellbound Heart, Pinhead and the Hellraiser franchise would go on to stretch to nine films, a comic series and make a cult star of lead actor Doug Bradley. Surprisingly Barker would craft his now-iconic horror creation from near-only one line of text from its source novel:

“Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy-the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.”

Whilst the Hellraiser franchise never matched the financial and mainstream popularity of bigger horror juggernauts like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th (The first Hellraiser film gained a modest $14.5 million at the box office), the increasingly-iconic image of Pinhead has bled into the public consciousness and the pinned-being remains a titan of the genre to horror fans. Despite the immediate recognizability of main antagonist Pinhead to casual film fans – many of them have not seen Hellraiser film – let alone could not connect Pinhead to the Hellraiser series.

Upon rewatching the later Hellraiser films, something bizarre struck me – and that was actually how little Pinhead and his fellow cenobites feature in the series. Whilst audiences thrive on seeing the chaos caused by Pinhead’s genre counterparts like Michael Myers, The Tall Man and Freddy Krueger, Pinhead remains a little-used device in the Hellraiser world. Unlike these fellow consistently entertaining horror franchises (I always find something to enjoy in even the worst of the Halloween, Phantasm, F13, and Puppet Master films), Hellraiser is a series of rapid ups and downs.

I’m going to attempt to dig a little deeper into the little-seen Hellraiser world and its largely ignored sequels – as what I believe that I have found is a horror franchise that studios do not appear to know what to do with. There are some truly dreadful entries into the Hellraiser franchise, that in my opinion are the reason that the series has always limped behind its genre competitors and failed to truly ever take-off into the mainstream.

Hellraiser (1987) – ‘We have such sights to show you.’

1987 saw Clive Barker bring his novel to the big screen with the horror-maestro also serving as director and working with New World Pictures. The modest British horror picture, Hellraiser featured a cast of relative unknowns and would serve as Barker’s first feature film (he would later go on to direct the excellent Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions). This DeSadean Gothic horror tale centres around stuffy couple Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) who move into their creepy new house. Julia soon discovers former lover Frank (Sean Chapman) living in the attic, now monstrously scarred and in need of human blood sacrifices to maintain his human form – the result of an encounter with a mysterious puzzle-box from the Middle East. Julia sets out to lure men back and bump them off in order to aid her former toyboy (an inspiration to Under the Skin?). She is eventually stopped by Larry’s teenage stepdaughter, Kirsty Cotton, played by Ashley Laurence who would become the infrequent heroine of the series.

Hellraiser is the most refreshing film of the series – it presents something never before seen in the horror genre and taps into the darkest areas of the human psyche.  Barker has crafted a dark Gothic drama capturing a warped family dynamic, tinged with an exploration the carnal pleasures that drive humanity. An atmosphere filled with dread and some stand-out horror imagery ensure that Barker’s film is a suitably chilling experience. Impressively, he is also not afraid to push S&M tinged sex into the forefront of his world, with hedonistic pleasure seekers facing a twisted retribution from their dark desires.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) – ‘Your suffering will be legendary, even in hell.’

The success of the first film meant that a sequel was quick to come to fruition. Ashley Laurence and Clare Higgins would reprise their roles, as would Doug Bradley who appears both as Pinhead and as Captain Elliot Spencer in a small origins tale within the film. Tony Randel (Amityville 1992: It’s About Time) directs this tale which follows Kirsty now living in a mental institution after the demise of her family – where, rather conveniently, the head Doctor (a wonderfully theatrical Kenneth Cranham) is a devoted occultist who resurrects Julia and unleashes the Cenobites once again.

Hellbound is a rather impressive sequel and adds quite a bit to the mythology behind the Hellraiser universe – most notably through the scenes which tell of Pinhead’s origins. Faced with post traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt after the Battle of Flanders, Captain Spencer loses his faith in God and humanity, opting for a hedonistic lifestyle driven by carnal pleasure. After finding the Lament Configuration in Colonial India in 1921, Spencer is dragged into the Cenobites’ world – eventually becoming one of the sadomasochistic explorers.

Although it uses several similar narrative devices from the first film (Julia is brought back to life in a similar means as Frank in Hellraiser) Hellbound keeps things fresh by taking us to the Cenobite’s labyrinthine world in its conclusion.  It is a mostly-focussed and competent companion piece to Barker’s original, despite relying on far more genre conventions than its innovative and exciting predecessor. In hindsight it is a strong-sequel (especially when based comparatively on the standards of the later films).

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) & Bloodline (1996) – ‘We’ll tear your soul apart!’

Now for my personal favourite, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. The revelation of his own former humanity results in Pinhead becoming stuck in a artefact known as the Pillar of Souls which is bought by a rich, spoiled and incredibly sexy club owner (Kevin Bernhardt) who accidentally reawakens the sadomasochistic being. Trapped on Earth, Pinhead decides to wreak havoc on the Planet and consume all the souls he can for his own pleasure. Frustrated journalist Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) attempts to uncover more about Pinhead and the Cenobites and is lead to the Channard Institute, uncovering tapes of victim Kirsty Cotton who explains the Lament Configuration is the only way to send Pinhead back.

Hell on Earth (the series’ first US production) would also mark the beginning of the Hellraiser’s relationship with Dimension Films, as opposed to previous producers New World Pictures. Although it is low on originality, Hell on Earth is one of the most fun entries in the series. For fans who simply want to watch Pinhead and the Cenobites cause chaos on Earth, then director Anthony Hickox (Waxwork) delivers on that front. Mythology is not at the forefront here, so this is simply a brain-numbingly entertaining horror extravaganza.

After this brief break from the increasingly-confusing Hellraiser mythology, film number four is quick to get back on the case. Hellraiser: Bloodline is when proceedings start to get noticeably shaky and clearly aware of this, this would be the last Hellraiser film produced by Barker. Bloodline opens in Space in the year 2127 (surely they could have thought of something more original than Pinhead in Space. Come on, this is only the fourth film), where space captain Paul Merchant attempts to solve the Lament Configuration with robots. Stopped by armed guards he is told the history of the box in a film which serves as both prequel and sequel to the original.

The vast majority of Bloodline takes place in 18th Century France where a toymaker makes the Lament Configuration for a dark magic obsessed aristocrat.  The aristocrat and his assistant (a confused Adam Scott in his first film role) murder a young woman to summon cenobite Angelique. Despite the interesting setting and increased ambition, what follows is vaguely comprehensible and entirely forgettable schlock that looks cheap and bores. This would also feature the death of Pinhead and the Cenobites, but since set in 2127 it seems that he would still be alive in the chronology of a prequel. Director Kevin Yagher (TV’s Tales From The Crypt) would go on to have his name removed from the finished product, unhappy with Dimension’s continuous tampering from reshoots to rewrites. Understandably it would be the last theatrically released Hellraiser film.

The Nose Dive: Inferno (2000), Hellseeker (2002) and Deader (2005)

Sadly this visceral and exciting franchise would lose its footing (almost) completely as it embarked on its following chapters. For some reason it appears Dimension Films weren’t sure how to handle the future of Hellraiser and instead of opting to approach new writers to craft an original instalment, they would simply alter existing horror scripts that they owned the rights to. This would mark the start of Hellraiser films which had nothing to do with the existing universe crafted in the previous four entries and would feature Pinhead in minimal supporting roles with almost no consequence to the existing narrative. Whether this was a move to save money (highly likely) or a means to get rid of stodgy old scripts (also highly likely), it would mark an incredibly disappointing time in the Hellrasier universe.

The worst of these offenders was Hellraiser: Inferno which transforms the series into a talky psychological drama that follows the loose morals of a corrupt cop. Doug Bradley has around four minutes of screentime despite how much of a fan favourite Pinhead has become. Whilst this in itself is disappointing, we know from the first film that a good Hellraiser film does not need to be wall to wall Pinhead, but when things are as boring as Inferno’s narrative it would be nice is he popped up for more than a few minutes. In an even more shocking turn of events, this, the worst film in the series would be directed by Scott Derickson – the man behind the excellent Sinister.

Some poor suckers must have been tricked into buying Inferno (who could blame them, the DVD case is plastered with Pinhead cover art), enough to merit a sixth entry. Titled Hellraiser: Hellseeker, this 2002 film would mark a solid improvement from Inferno, yet would still be a far cry from the glory days of the earlier features. A young Dean Winters stars as a shady businessman who attempts to piece together the events which lead to a car crash that killed his wife and left him in possession of the Lament Configuration. Thanks to an excellent performance from Winters (we really get a sense of this broken man) and the brief return of Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty Cotton in a neat twist, Hellseeker is a serviceable addition to the series. This is the most sexually charged effort since Hellraiser III and sees a slight return to the sadomasochistic roots of the first film. Of course, not being an original Hellraiser script and being randomly pulled out of a drawer by Dimension, Hellseeker is once again a near completely Pinhead and Cenobite free zone. Sigh.

Film number seven, Hellraiser: Deader (how can something be ‘deader’?) returns to the near unwatchable quality of Inferno, despite Hellseeker’s solid glimmer of hope for the series. Deader sees reporter Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) go undercover in Romania (cheap filming location?) to investigate a community of goths who are part of a mysteriously cult. So how did Pinhead get jammed into the story this time? Well these goths have figured out how to resurrect themselves. Dark, grimy and needlessly confusing, Deader is another nail in Hellraiser’s coffin (or should that be Pinhead’s face). On the subject of Pinhead, the fact that Bradley once again only receives around five minutes of screentime should go without saying now.

Perhaps the worst thing about these rewritten screenplays is that none of them are remotely scary. Whilst Hellraiser fans obviously do want to see Pinhead, we would perhaps be more forgiving if these sequels could actually deliver some strong scares without his presence. Even the worst of the Halloween films would have the odd scare, an impressively gory Michael Myers’ killing or at least have the charismatic Donald Pleasence to ensure things stayed watchable.

Hellworld (2005) – ‘Do I look like someone who cares what God thinks’

With some trepidation we move onto entry number eight, Hellraiser: Hellworld. At least this has Lance Henriksen and Henry Cavill – they’re cool, right guys? Hellworld is a bit like the Halloween: Resurrection of the Hellraiser saga – it has gone for the teenagers being bumped off one by one in an old house narrative. Trying to be somewhat post-modern Hellworld takes place in a world where the victims know the Hellraiser films and Pinhead is a well-known popular culture villain. Sadly this is no Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Hellworld was filmed back to back with Deader in Romania by director Rick Bota (who has been in control of the series since Hellseeker back in 2002). It takes a more conventional horror sequel approach – abandoning detectives and cults in favour of horny teens.  Of course there is minimal Pinhead, but a large supporting role for a sleepwalking Lance Henriksen slightly makes up for that. Hellworld never bores, but is a long way from the glory days of Barker’s original Hellraiser back in 1987. If we’re looking for positives – we get to see Henry Cavill fake getting a blowjob and there’s a relatively cool scene between Doug Bradley’s Pinhead and Lance Henriksen’s character in the conclusion.

I may even go as far to say that Hellworld could have been moderately entertaining if it weren’t for some horrendous plot twists (basically everyone is on drugs and the Pinhead killings are just hallucinations – what!) This would be the last Hellraiser film to still Doug Bradley (for the moment anyway) and would mark the start of a six year hiatus for the franchise.

Clinging to the Cash-Cow: Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)

“Who dat?”

Allegedly the rights to the Hellraiser were due to revert back to their original owners so Dimension’s owners The Weinsteins fast-tracked this release in order to retain them. With a minimal budget ($300k) and no Doug Bradley, Hellraiser: Revelations ultimately feels like a fan project rushed out by Dimension – once again proving that this is a franchise that the studio simply have no idea what to do with.

Bradley had been asked to reprise his role as Pinhead but gave his reasons for (and fortunately at that) turning down the project:

‘The ink is barely dry on the script, and it is scheduled to be in front of the cameras in two weeks time and in the can by the middle of next month (September 2010). The minuscule shooting schedule is more than matched by the budget….One way or another, this does not seem to me to represent a serious attempt to revive the Hellraiser franchise.‘ Doug Bradley

Thinking more optimistically, a bare-bones update of Hellraiser could have been exactly what was needed to fix a series that had been plagued by dodgy scripts and strayed far from the rich Gothic world that Barker created. However, Revelations is such a staggering misfire that it actually ends up being another huge low point in a now increasingly damaged series.

A bit like Inferno onwards, Revelations has no real connection with the Hellraiser Universe other than the appearance of Pinhead (who has now gained some weight and is played by Stephan Smith Collins – a man who struggles to capture one ounce of the deadly gravitas that Doug Bradley had), a couple of Cenobites and The Lament Configuration.

Helmed by Victor Garcia (Mirrors 2), the film follows two obnoxious teens heading to Mexico when they discover the Lament Configuration. After being traumatised one of the teens returns home and brings the evil of fat Pinhead’s world with him. Part home-invasion thriller, part teen torture-porn flick, Revelations is a particularly sour footnote – which is sad as it is the first original script to grace the series since Hellraiser: Bloodlines. Knowing the manner and reason as to why this was constructed also means that it is a struggle not to view this with a little resentment – after all this once again uses the Hellraiser name to trick loyal fans and make a quick buck whilst retaining the rights to the series – but I guess Dimension has been doing that since Inferno

The Future – ‘No tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering.’

Rumours of a potential spin-off in the form of Pinhead vs. Michael Myers appeared after the success of Freddy vs. Jason back in 2003 – but  these proved untrue and the boat for that sort of film has long-since sailed now in our current generation of horror reboots. This would ultimately be the direction that Hellraiser is heading with Clive Barker repeatedly making his interest in a fresh start clear.

Originally rumoured back in 2006 with MartyrsPascal Laugier directing – the project was cut short due to tensions between the French filmmaker and producers. Laugier wanted to stay true to Barker’s vision and explore the darker connotations surrounding Hellraiser such as its suggestions of ‘S&M gay culture’. However producers wanted a more teen-friendly angle, refusing Laugier’s more adult take – resulting in the director abandoning the project.

Roll on to 2010 and Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry) are briefly attached to the project and hope to explore the world of The Lament Configuration. However, the reboot hit a brick wall and the filmmakers followed Laugier’s suit.

Now that leads us to 2013 where several exciting revelations regarding the Hellraiser universe were announced. Clive Barker informed fans that he would personally be writing a remake for Dimension. He stated on his official Facebook page:

‘A few weeks ago I had a very productive meeting with Bob Weinstein of Dimension Pictures, in the course of which I pitched a remake of the first ‘Hellraiser’ film. “The idea of my coming back to the original film and telling the story with a fresh intensity-honoring the structure and the designs from the first incarnation but hopefully creating an even darker and richer film-was attractive to Dimension. Today I have officially been invited to write the script based upon that pitch.’ 

Barker also confirmed Doug Bradley’s return to the series stating:  

Well, it will not be a film awash with CGI. I remain as passionate about the power of practical make-up effects as I was when I wrote and directed the first HELLRAISER. Of course the best make-up in the world loses force if not inhabited by a first-rate actor. I told the Dimension team that in my opinion there could never be a Pinhead without Doug Bradley,and much to my delight Bob Weinstein agreed.’ 
A further treat for Hellraiser fans was announced in the form of a TV series developed by Sonar Entertainment and produced by Larry Kuppin, whose company New World Entertainment is behind the first two Hellraiser films. Whilst this news seems less secure than Dimension’s plans for a remake, a Hellraiser series sounds like a real treat and could be an interesting way to expand on the Gothic carnal mythology. As we have seen through Hannibal, Bates Motel and From Dusk Till Dawn – if done well, horror on the small-screen can be even better than its cinematic counterpart. 
Concluding Thoughts

With the steady hand of original creator Clive Barker guiding Dimension, we are filled with great hope for the Hellraiser reboot. Barker’s return once again means the series is in safe hands and we know that Dimension is unlikely to go down the teen-slasher remake avenue with Barker on-board. As for Hellraiser on the small-screen this seems like much more of a blank canvas and has the potential to be something really special. It’s likely that Larry Kuppin will be seeking out Doug Bradley to return, given that the pair worked together on the first two Hellraiser pictures. So hopefully the days of bottom-drawer scripts and micro-budget cash-ins are long gone and the Hellraiser franchise is back in safe hands.

The Hellraiser Universe is a rich one, filled with fascinating concepts about the dangerous carnal passions that drive humanity. Sadly, once the series went straight-to-DVD  it was stripped of all that was interesting and original about it. Let’s just hope that Dimension have learned from their mistakes and their continued fan disappointment. We’ll soon see – well, that’s if the reboot ever gets off the ground.

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