Clive Barker's 1987 British horror film Hellraiser is bloody, bizarre and entertaining, and introduced the world to one of the most memorable second-tier horror villains, Pinhead. Like poor Drew Barrymore in Scream, who misidentified the villain in Friday the 13th, you may be surprised to learn that Pinhead has very little screen time in Hellraiser, and, while he and the Cenobites are present, the true villains are human. The violence is often over-the-top repulsive, as hooks, chains and clamps tear the flesh from bones, and the mystery of Frank Cotton, his lover and her stepdaughter carries the film. Hellraiser is stylish, though not entirely logical, and remains an effective blend of fantasy and horror. Nearly twenty years after the film Roger Ebert called a "bankruptcy of imagination" was released, Hellraiser still frightens.
Cotton (Sean Chapman) has exhausted the carnal and drug-assisted thrills of reality, and opens a mystical puzzle box in hopes of achieving a new high. What he finds is a quick, painful death at the hands of dimension-traveling Cenobites, ritually mutilated humanoids who can no longer tell the difference between pleasure and pain. The man's brother, Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson), moves into same house where Frank Cotton died, and brings with him wife Julia (Clare Higgins). Semi-estranged daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) lives close by but dislikes stepmother Julia, who was sleeping with Frank. When Larry cuts his hand and drops of blood spill onto the attic floor, Frank is awakened and re-animated. The skinless terror then convinces Julia to murder men so he can feed on their flesh and complete his transformation. Kirsty discovers what Julia is doing, and realizes that she and her father are in grave danger.
The majority of Hellraiser concerns Julia and Kirsty, and Higgins knocks it out of the park as the cold-as-ice enabler. The relationship between Julia and Frank is strange and off-putting, but it drives the narrative. Julia is initially frightened of Frank, but quickly becomes a true femme fatale, luring men back to the house before killing them for her undead lover. Larry becomes entangled in the mess, and Kirsty re-opens the puzzle box to make a deal with Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his minions to save her own life in exchange for delivering them Frank. The Cenobites are creepy, the practical gore effects appropriately disgusting, and the overall mystery is compelling. Barker created a memorable fantasy world with this first film, and Hellraiser goes to unexpected places. The pacing in the first hour is a bit sluggish, but once the film finds its footing, it never lets up. Hellraiser: **** (out of *****).
The sequel came a year later, and picks up directly after the events of the first film. If nothing else, Hellbound: Hellraiser II feels like a Clive Barker film, though Barker turned the director's chair over to Tony Randel. Here, Kirsty is haunted by visions of her dead father, who she fears is trapped in hell. One of her psychiatrists, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), searches for the Lament Configuration puzzle box, and convinces a mentally ill patient to spill blood on the mattress where Julia died. This awakens the woman, who seduces Channard and kills more of his patients to increase her strength. Channard's sins arouse the Cenobites, and Kirsty ends up in their dimension, trailed by Julia, and runs into a very angry Frank. This family reunion in Hell is plagued by cheap sets and dodgy visual effects, but offers a quicker pace and more action than its predecessor.
There is a lot going on in Hellbound, and it's obvious the quick turnaround did not allow Barker and screenwriter Peter Atkins to do much polishing of the script. Even so, the film expands the Hellraiser mythology nicely, and Higgins and Laurence again give effective performances. I like that Barker and company took the story in a different direction while utilizing the original's key players. Pinhead again takes a backseat to Julia, Kirsty and Frank, but we learn a bit more about the Cenobites' origins and the laws of their universe. Some scenes are scantily developed, and the film feels more like a wild chase in its climax than horror. The best of the numerous sequels, Hellbound is a nice companion to the first. Hellbound: Hellraiser II: ***1/2 (out of *****).
The Dimension Films logo at the beginning of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth tells you a lot about what is coming. This second sequel, directed by Anthony Hickox, feels less like a Hellraiser film than one of the studio's many generic horror movies released in the 1990s. Still, Hellraiser III is not without its charms. Pinhead finally gets center stage here, though it borders on the standup-comedy-Freddy Krueger territory of later Nightmare on Elm Street films. Part three even has a stylish sex scene with fluorescent lighting, so you know it's 1992. I actually like one core element of this story: Pinhead's soul, or id, or something is split in two. There's the WWI British Army Captain Elliot Spencer and his evil counterpart, present in Pinhead form. Spencer gets stuck in limbo, and Pinhead is trapped on the Pillar of Souls seen briefly at the end of the previous film. A douchey nightclub owner (Kevin Bernhardt) buys the pillar, unaware of its origin, and awakens Pinhead, who forces the man to bring him souls.
The protagonist here is a young reporter, Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell), who witnesses a Pinhead victim get ripped apart in a hospital emergency room. With the help of the victim's friend, Terri (Paula Marshall), Summerskill begins rooting around the nightclub, which becomes the scene of a violent massacre. Hellraiser III floats the idea that this Pinhead is breaking the rules of the Cenobite universe without the humanity of Spencer to keep him in check. That's fine, but I'm not sure the filmmakers even saw the previous films if they think that Pinhead was some law-abiding Cenobite. This entry is also full of bad acting and over-the-top kills, which both helps and hurts the film's entertainment value. This is a silly movie that feels out of place in the original trilogy, but it is responsible for bringing us leading-man Pinhead. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth: **1/2 (out of *****).
THE BLU-RAY COLLECTION:
PICTURE AND SOUND:
Horror fans waited several years for Arrow to release its Hellraiser box set in America. Released in both elaborate "Scarlet Box Limited Edition" and standard trilogy variants in the UK, the trilogy initially receives only the more elaborate release in America. Unfortunately, Arrow Video only provided check discs for review, thus I cannot comment on the ultimate quality of the picture and sound. Nevertheless, even these screeners offer excellent technical presentations, so I assume the final product is impressive. If I receive a retail version in the future I will update this review.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Although I did not receive the retail version, fans should enjoy the elaborately packaged set, which includes all three movies on separate discs, a Blu-ray bonus disc and several physical extras, including art cards, a booklet and poster. I can comment on the on-disc content, which is excellent. On the Hellraiser disc you get Interviews with Sean Chapman, Stephen Thrower and Doug Bradley (26:24, 18:11 and 12:31, respectively); an extensive documentary, Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser (1:29:18); an Image Gallery, TV spots, Trailers, an Original EPK Featurette (5:58), a vintage featurette, Hellraiser: Resurrection (24:26); a Commentary with Writer/Director Clive Barker; and a Commentary with Clive Barker and Ashley Laurence.
On the second disc you get a Commentary with Director Tony Randel and Writer Peter Atkins; a Commentary with Tony Randel, Peter Atkins and Ashley Laurence; Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II (2:00:46); Interviews with Sean Chapman and Doug Bradley (11:35 and 10:53, respectively); an excised Surgeon Scene (4:49); a Lost in the Labyrinth featurette (17:03); an On-Set Interview with Clive Barker (3:18), On-Set Interviews with the Cast and Crew (4:45); Behind-the-Scenes Footage (1:51); Storyboards; TV Spots; and Trailers.
On disc three you get an Alternate Unrated Version (96:38); a Commentary with Writer Peter Atkins; a Commentary with Director Anthony Hickox and Doug Bradley; Hell on Earth: The Story of Hellraiser III (32:01); Interviews with Paul Marshall, Anthony Hickox and Doug Bradley (14:55, 14:00 and 13:46, respectively); SFX Dailies (23:49); an EPK featurette (5:12); the Theatrical Trailer; and an Image Gallery.
The fourth disc is the Clive Barker Legacy bonus material. It includes featurette Books of Blood and Beyond (19:25); documentary Hellraiser: Evolutions (48:17); and three Short Films (31:40, 18:29 and 42:59, respectively).
Fans of the Hellraiser series will want to quickly order this Limited Edition Scarlet Box Trilogy before it sells out. Although a standard Blu-ray trilogy is likely on the horizon, this version is reasonably priced and handsomely packaged. Clive Barker's original film is daring, bloody and unique, and the two included sequels offer their own thrills. If the final product mirrors the screener discs sent to DVD Talk, the technical presentations should impress, and the set includes a daunting amount of bonus features. Highly Recommended for horror fans.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.