A few months ago, I saw the horror film Hellraiser for the first time. Impressed and seduced by Clive Barker’s twisted tale, I then decided to delve into its many sequels – some of which Barker was involved with, some of which he’s pointedly disowned (“If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole”). I found a wide variety of quality within the series, ranging from the abjectly awful to the surprisingly complex. Here’s my journey into darkness…
SPOILER WARNING: Minor plot points will be revealed.
1. Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
When a married couple move into a new house, wife Julia discovers her missing brother-in-law is in the process of returning from hell…
Produced for under £1m, this British-American horror movie was directed by Clive Barker and based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Searing and stylish, it’s a compelling watch. Affable American Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his uptight British wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into a new home. Then Julia discovers an awful truth. Larry’s rebellious younger brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), was recently sucked into hell after toying with dark magic in the hope of an intense pain/pleasure experience. The device that allowed entry to that world is an ornate, cube-shaped puzzle box. Frank is now in the process of escaping, but is being chased by the demonic Cenobites (Doug Bradley and others)… For all its horror elements – intense violence, torture, nightmarish threats, *extremely* graphic gore – this is a story about a twisted love triangle. It’s a psycho-sexual drama about Frank and Julia’s obsessional affair that almost entirely takes place in one suburban house. (Where that house is, by the way, is difficult to answer. Almost every character is American, yet the filming locations are demonstrably in England.) Added into the mix is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who becomes the heroine of the story as she uncovers the horror going on…
Nine pet shops out of 10
2. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, Tony Randel)
Later that night, Kirsty is in hospital – but her doctor is showing an odd fascination in her case…
This sequel – made with only light involvement from Clive Barker – is sometimes appealing and has a certain Gothic strangeness. But it’s also often cheesy and hammy and is far less nuanced than the original. Kirsty is in hospital after her experiences in the first film. Her doctor, Channard (Kenneth Cranham), already knows about the Cenobites and is obsessed with them and their mythology. He eventually teams up with Julia (Clare Higgins again, playing her more archly this time) and there’s then a lengthy sequence set in hell, which ticks several predictable boxes: eerie music, endless corridors, macabre circus performers, stop-motion animation, wind and smoke. Meanwhile, the lead Cenobite – now officially credited as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – gets both a music-video entrance and an interesting backstory.
Four bandages out of 10
3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992, Anthony Hickox)
A TV reporter investigates a violent death and encounters the Cenobites…
Frustrated journalist Joey (Terry Farrell from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) stumbles across a story when she sees a mutilated victim being brought into a hospital. This leads her to an underground nightclub, where the slimy owner has recently bought a strange statue… The first Hellraiser film financed by the Weinstein brothers’ Dimension Films company, Hell on Earth is certainly trash. There’s a lot of crass dialogue and a parade of bad actors (several of whom sound like they’ve been dubbed in post-production). Director Anthony Hickox is also a fan of pyrotechnics, Dutched camera angles and early 90s coloured lighting, then gives us a drawn-out, overblown action-movie finale – so subtly is not the order of the day. But there’s just enough atmosphere and arresting images to keep you watching and entertained. Especially fun is the sequence where Joey is given a ghostly tour of the backstory by Pinhead’s human form (Doug Bradley sans make-up).
Six red roses out of 10
4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, Alan Smithee)
On a space station in the far future, a man tells the story of the demon-summoning puzzle box and says he’s set a trap…
Rather joltingly, we start in space. It’s the year 2127 and an eccentric man is holed up in a space station he designed himself. The vibe in part Alien, part Babylon 5. Then the man, Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), tells a strange story… We cut back to France, 1796. Merchant’s ancestor Phillip (Ramsay again) is a toymaker. He’s built an ornate puzzle box for a client, who then uses it in a bizarre ritual that brings a demon called Angelique (Valentina Vargas) from hell to earth… It’s creepy if hammy stuff with decent production design, editing and music – and we’re also back to the first film’s themes of obsession and of pain, violence and torture being aspects of sexual pleasure. The bulk of the film is then set in the modern day (1996) and features another member of the Merchant family, an architect called John (Ramsay for a third time). Angelique is still around and targets him and his family. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) also shows up… which is a shame because as he takes centre stage (on the orders of the studio), the sexy and intriguing Angelique fades into the background and the film becomes less interesting. By the time we eventually return to the space station, the momentum has dropped out of the story.
Six twin security guards out of 10
5. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000, Scott Derrickson)
A police detective is tormented by hellish visions as he attempts to track down a missing child…
LAPD detective Joseph Thorne (the David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer) likes speed chess, wordplay and prostitutes but is trapped in a dour marriage. At a crime scene he finds the puzzle box we’ve seen in previous films and nabs it for himself. But when he absentmindedly opens it, his life starts to get *weird*: a hooker he’s slept with is brutally murdered and he begins to have visions of demons… Rather than the baroque horror of the earlier movies, Inferno – the first straight-to-DVD Hellraiser – feels more like a seedy cop movie. In fact, the connection to the Hellraiser concept is pretty loose and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead barely features. Instead, we get clichés such as an angry police captain, a gullible sidekick, and a minor character played by a famous actor who turns out to be the villain. (The production designers were also surely big fans of David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven.) Scott Derrickson, who later made the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, directs with a music–video sensibility, so we do get some striking horror images, but the script lacks clarity. There’s a gumshoe plot going on about a mysterious man called the Engineer who may have kidnapped a child, but the film doesn’t seem that interested in it. There are loose ends, a central performance that doesn’t convince, and a final nightmarish third that toys with silliness. Nevertheless the dreamlike weirdness and tough-guy edge make it reasonable watchable.
Six fingers out of 10
6. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002, Rick Bota)
After his wife dies in a car crash, a man is haunted by hallucinations and other strangeness…
This sixth Hellraiser sees the return of the original film’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), but in the first scene she drowns after a car accident, and her widower, Trevor (Dean Winters), is left in a bad way. Physically fine, he starts to realise that his memory is not reliable – and because the film is from his point of view we share in his confusion. Did he have an affair? Did he visit a strange warehouse? Was his relationship with Kirsty as happy as it seemed in the opening scene? The film is playing interesting games with perception and reality, presenting us with a puzzle made up of conflicting evidence. (It feels more like a paranoia thriller or an episode of The Twilight Zone than a horror movie. You can also detect the distinct influence of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.) As with the preceding Hellraiser, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead is little more than a cameo – just a few brief glimpses and then an exposition scene at the end where we get a pleasing twist ending. The cast lets the film down, especially Winters, who can’t quite convince us of the horrors Trevor is experiencing. However, this is still a surprisingly complex and engaging film.
Seven camcorders out of 10
7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005, Rick Bota)
A journalist is drawn into a terrifying world while investigating Deaders, a group attempting to gain control of the Cenobites’ realm…
This is a grimy, putrid film: aside from brief scenes at the proto-hipster offices of UK newspaper The London Underground, the story plays out is decaying, flaking, dark spaces; there are flies and sludge and filth. Journalist Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) is sent to Bucharest to report on a death cult called the Deaders. Her only lead turns out to be a corpse, but she then finds the all-important puzzle box. Opening it, she summons Pinhead – who’s engaged in some kind of battle of wills with the Deaders for control of the Underworld – and her life gets more and more bizarre… The film has a few tense scenes and effective scares, as well as some genuinely out-there weirdness (following a lead to a Metro train, Amy finds an entire carriage given over to a steampunk-themed orgy with Hustle’s Marc Warren holding court). The longer it goes on, though, the more muddy the storytelling gets.
Three VHS tapes out of 10
8. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005, Rick Bota)
A group of gamers are invited to a party connected to their favourite game, but can they trust the event’s host?
Clichés abound in this eighth Hellraiser entry, which sees a batch of noughties slackers (one of whom is future Superman Henry Cavill) attend a party but encounter hellish experiences and violent deaths. Let’s list a few of the hamfisted, overused tropes: portentous church music and close-ups of Christian iconography to suggest religious overtones; early scenes with clunky expositionary dialogue; a ‘real’ scene being revealed as a dream; gamers being addicted to an online game that’s clearly too basic to engage anyone; a Gothic mansion; a rave where extras dance out of time to the music; a midrange star cast as the villain (Lance Henriksen); a cute female character who wanders off on her own for no reason; sex scenes shot like a music video… It’s a dreadful film: slow, stupid and simplistic.
One ultraviolet, 24-hour, wildly popular and yet utterly purposeless, embraced-by-the-masses internet roleplaying game out of 10
9. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011, Victor Garcia)
Two young Americans go on a hedonistic trip to Mexico, where they encounter violence and a mysterious puzzle box…
Shot in just three weeks on a tiny budget – as a cynical ploy by Dimension Films to retain the Hellraiser rights – Revelations should be utter garbage. There are daytime-soap performances among the new characters while Doug Bradley has jumped ship after eight appearances as Pinhead (to be replaced by someone eminently forgettable). The film is also crudely edited and relies too heavily on Blair Witch-style camcorder footage. But despite these limitations, it’s just mediocre rather than offensively awful. In the plus column, the movie digs down deep into the same sordid subject matter as the original Hellraiser – it’s another story about perverse pleasure and obsession. In fact, there are several visual echoes and plot nods to Clive Barker’s 1987 movie, as well as the same love of extreme gore. But it’s still mediocre.
Four bullshit genericas out of 10
10. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018, Gary J Tunnicliffe)
Three police detectives hunt down a serial killer called the Preceptor, but the investigation leads to an encounter with hellish denizens…
In an unspecified city, a trio of detectives are on the trail of a macabre murderer who kills ritualistically for religious reasons. It’s all very sub-Seven, but then the cops comes across the Cenobites, who are attempting to find new ways of tempting souls into hell… There are several clichés of low-budget filmmaking on show here – shaky camerawork, poor framings, a remarkable lack of people on screen who aren’t the lead actors, and a general sense that corners are having to be cut. The design work is decent (check out the Terry Gilliam-esque typewriters!) and gore freaks will love the amount of graphic mutilation on show. But this is grim, pretentious drivel with some really inept storytelling and a fairly rubbish cast.
Two Star Wars quotations (‘What an incredible smell you’ve discovered’) out of 10