A Journey through the frequently weird, sometimes great, and often nightmarish world of Hellraiser sequels

I was sixteen when I tried to see Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) in the theater. In the United States, that’s one year too young to see an R-rated movie without an adult. But I was sulky and weird and was damn well going to try. It didn’t work. I was turned away, denied the otherworldly pain and pleasure of Pinhead, the Cenobites, and those chain-hook contraptions they love so dearly. I vowed to get revenge on all who had wronged and shamed me by getting a job in a movie theater and letting underage kids go see pretty much whatever the hell they wanted as long as they weren’t obnoxious to me. It is one of the few promises I made to myself that I actually kept. I hope all you sixteen-year-olds who wanted to see Oliver Stone’s The Doors appreciate what I did for you.

Luckily, the video shop from which I rented wasn’t as diligent about ages, so eventually, I got the movie in front of myself and delighted in its phantasmagorical strangeness and gore, though I regret not having been able to see that crazy art design on a big screen. Like many horror fans who came of age in the 1980s, Hellraiser and Hellbound occupy a special place. Amid a glut of slasher films, Hellraiser was something different and transgressive. It explored the psychosexual mindset of suburban America, challenging (among other things) that big cities are where the sin and perversion is while small-town America is wholesome and full of people who smile at their neighbors. Which, in the world of Hellraiser, maybe they do smile at their neighbors, but it’s only because they’re thinking about all the weird, kinky shit they’re getting up to behind drawn curtains.

In the 1980s, that wasn’t exactly a revelatory theme, but hey. I was a moody teenager in a small town. It was news to me, and it definitely clicked. It clicked because, 1) I just knew all those smug adults around me who chastised me for looking weird were a bunch of screwed-up hypocrites, and 2) I aspired to be a kinky, twisted pervert myself. If those two mindsets seem contradictory, well, try telling that to a small-town teenager.

As I grew older and made good on some of my dreams of doin’ weird stuff, I reassessed some of my feelings toward Hellraiser and Hellbound. At no point did I decide I didn’t love both movies. I did, and I still do. But I started to notice how campy Hellbound is, especially its villain, Dr. Channard, who pioneered the wisecracking nonsense that would permeate the third film in the franchise and had already, for many, sent A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger front he charnel house to the clown house. I also disliked that the menacing, mysterious Cenobites were given origin stories, which made them neither menacing nor mysterious any longer. This is especially true for Pinhead, who we learn has only been at the job since…the early 20th century??? I mean, that’s a long time for me to be in a job, but an immortal S&M demon? I guess I expected more seniority—which is a mistake. Being on the job a long time is, in itself, not indicative of one’s efficacy as a manager or leader (and if you think this corporate office manager analogy is labored, wait until we get to Hellseeker).

But, like the various Nightmare sequels, Hellbound still gets weird enough that I love it despite its missteps.

With Hellraiser, which was a more sober film than its wacky sequel, it was Pinhead, the menacing threat from beyond, who was the focus of my reassessment. Part of this reassessment happened because, in the years between first seeing Hellraiser and rewatching it, there had been several sequels of wildly varying quality which had, as a whole, rendered Pinhead a less ominous threat. As a one-off, he’s a freaky S&M demon who invades suburban America and drags its sundry perversions into the open. And then, of course, shoots chain-hooks at everyone. But after the dodgy progression of the series, he’d become kind of…I don’t know. Not silly, exactly. Repetitive, perhaps? A dash of the goth teen who fancies themself witness to a secret world and then won’t shut up about it. Or maybe the master of a dungeon who, forced to constantly come up with new tortures for his submissives, kind of just starts repeating himself. “Yes, yes…suffering…flesh…here’s the hook-chains.” I can imagine Pinhead collapsing into a chair next to The Duke of Burgundy‘s Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as the two of them bemoan the exhausting obligation to constantly come up with new tortures to keep their submissives engaged.

This isn’t fair to Pinhead, of course. It’s not his fault he kept getting summoned by the puzzle box into a series of questionable sequels, most of which hadn’t even been conceived as Hellraiser sequels when they were initially written. It’s also not his fault that familiarity breeds comfort, which robs him of his original menace—a problem that has plagued monsters from Godzilla to Jason to Freddy. But then, maybe those sequels are the exquisite pain visited upon me by Pinhead. Because they are exquisite pain. I don’t think I like most of them…but then I sort of do. And a few of them, I really do like, without a wishy-washy qualifier. As a whole, they may do a disservice to Hellraiser by rarely fully grasping its central theme, or if they do, failing to explore it with the same authenticity and depth as Clive Barker. They’re hollow reenactments, trotting out tired Pinhead cliches. But, weirdly, and perhaps very much like those A NIghtmare on Elm Street sequels, I find myself revisiting them from time to time, even when I’m under no obligation to do so. And more times than not, I find I enjoy the pain.

What’s Your Pleasure, Pinhead: Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Having been denied the pleasure of seeing the first two Hellraisers in the theater, I was then granted pain of going to the theater to see the third. Pinhead often delivers his victims an imbalance on the pleasure/pain scale, giving them what seems to me rather mundane and brief pleasure before hitting them with the chain-hooks and tearing off their skin. I guess that’s what you get for summoning with Pinhead, though, without any consideration for what he might have going on in his own life. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) is definitely Pinhead hitting you with the chain-hooks.

I was twenty and free when it was released and young enough to still lack much in the way of nuanced understanding of storytelling. So when I heard “this is the film that unleashes the Cenobites on the whole world,” I was pretty excited and not, at the time, concerned about what that might mean in terms of over-exposing the shadowy demons. Also, apparently, I had learned nothing from Friday the 13th, Part 8: Jason Manhattan and what is likely to happen when a movie promises you your favorite monster rampaging through a much larger world.

At the end of Hellbound, the Cenobites were defeated, and the puzzle box was lost. Obviously, that didn’t last for very long. Hell on Earth picks up with a skeevy guy who owns the most ridiculously 1990s combination of a fancy five-star restaurant playing “String Quintet In E Major, Op.13, No.5 – Minuet” and an industrial goth club decorated with S&M teddy bears. 1990s horror had a very specific idea of what goth and industrial clubs looked like. Also, it’s supposed to be the most awesome underground goth club ever, except that it’s full of early 1990s frat guy types. If this was the first Hellraiser, I would say Clive Barker is exploring how bored, alienated suburbanites flocked to and often took over sex clubs in cities, gentrifying them away from the people who had been going there before. But this isn’t the first Hellraiser movie, so I’m not giving it that benefit of the doubt.

And I know this is judgy of me, but J.P. Monroe is not the name of a guy who owns a sexy industrial dance club. It’s the name of a place with decent hot wings and two-for-one oysters.

J.P. buys a horrific sculpture that we know, from the stinger ending of Hellbound, is the current prison of Pinhead. Meanwhile, TV reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell, a couple of years before hew Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame) is trying to make a name for herself. When at a hospital, she stumbles upon a screaming young man embedded with hooked chains. He explodes, as is the way with such things, and this puts her on a track leading to the club Eventually, of course, Pinhead will be freed from his prison and, after creating a new army of Cenobites to replace the ones he lost in Hellbound, he will go on the promised rampage through New York, which means he mostly goes on a casual stroll through empty back streets and makes some manhole covers blow up.

Joey teams up with the ghost of Pinhead’s former self (Doug Bradley, doing what he can) in hopes of defeating the lord of Hell in a fairly unmemorable final showdown. It’s pretty tepid stuff, but it’s still watchable if you appreciate the camp of it all. And there is a lot of camp—not the intentional stuff, but the real thing. Pinhead gets to massacre a club full of fake movie goths, so I guess that counts for something, but mostly, the whole thing is just a letdown. Pinhead’s new Cenobites are ludicrous and possess none of the previous original batch’s menace. Instead, we get a guy who throws CDs at people and a guy with a video camera in his head? They’re all a bunch of wisecracking goofballs, also, and they utterly betray the initial intent of Cenobite design. They were supposed to possess a certain unnerving, grotesque elegance. But this bunch looks like a project Pinhead clumsily threw together on the school bus the day it was due

Pinhead (who is referred to by that name for the first time in this movie, much to Clive Barker’s chagrin—he preferred Hell Priest, which…not a lot of points for creativity there, either) doesn’t escape unscathed, as he is put through a number of ham-fisted “shock” scenes, such as the completely ludicrous bit that takes place in a church and has Pinhead assuming “The Jesus pose.” We get it, we get it! It’s ironic! And it looks less he’s striking an ironic crucifixion pose and more like he’s doing jazz hands. It doesn’t help that he’s pulling a face that reminds me a lot of Herman Munster when he would get excited. That this scene lit righteous hellfire under religious conservatives who wanted to ban the movie for being sacrilegious is hilarious. But what’s more hilarious is that they tried to hire Peter Jackson (back when he was still a horror director) to direct and he turned it down because he thought he was a bad fit for serious horror. “If I made a Hellraiser film, I’d like Pinhead to be whacked against a wall and have all the pins flattened into his face,” he said. If only he’d known about CD Head and jazz hands Jesus.

Cenobites in Space: Hellraiser: Bloodline

Tagged by many as “Hellraiser in space,” Bloodline (1996) just seemed too silly to me at the time of its original release, so I didn’t bother. Hellraiser III burned me pretty bad, and while I rarely learn lessons, I learned that one. But then came that weird phase when pretty much everyone from Jason Vorhees to Leprechaun was getting shuttled off into space. Bloodline reemerged as something of a pioneer of this idea, as bad as the idea may be. I suspect it drew inspiration from Event Horizon, the gory horror film that tricked a lot of people into seeing it because they thought they were going to see a science fiction film and not something with exploding eyeballs and Sam Neill with his face ripped to shreds. The sting of Hell on Earth had faded a bit by the turn of the century, so I figured if I had seen Jason X, I might as well give Pinhead’s space adventure a go. In retrospect, the idea of Hellraiser expanding into space was promising, if under-realized in this film, lending the series a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Bloodline marks the end of Clive Barker’s active involvement with the series, though it’s questionable how much the “executive producer” had to do with part three. It’s also the final contribution of Peter Atkins, who’d been scripting the movies since part two. 

The action skips back and forth through time, beginning in the future with an engineer, Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), who has designed a space station with the sole purpose of summoning and trapping Pinhead and his Cenobites. Unfortunately, just as the Cenobites make their appearance—thankfully, we’re back to a less A/V club line-up, with Camcorder Head and CD Head being left on the scrapheap of the third film—standard-issue space marines storm the facility, halt the experiment, and demand to know what the hell the engineer is up to. So kicks off his lengthy tale, which takes us to 18th century France where we meet his ancestor, the toymaker — and the original designer of the maligned Lament Configuration puzzle box that has caused so many people to have their skin pulled off by chain-hooks.

The toymaker, Phillip LeMarchand (also played by Ramsay), doesn’t realize at first exactly what it is he’s been commissioned to make by a twisted Marquis DeSade style nobleman, Duc de L’Isle (Mickey Cottrell), who longs to indulge himself in the pleasures and pains that exist just beyond the reach of our dimension. He soon finds out though, and in his desperate struggle to contain the horror he has brought into the world, the toymaker assures that all those of his bloodline will be motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, to seek out the Lament Configuration box and destroy it.

The first demon called forth from the box isn’t any of the Cenobites we know and love, but is instead a more standard-issue succubus type named Angelique (Valentina Vargas, who also appears in some great and gruesome make-up as a new Cenobite elsewhere in the movie). Just as the toymaker’s bloodline carries the innate desire to undo the box’s making, she exists through the ages to protect it and see that it gets used. This takes us to 1996, when we learn that one of the toymaker’s descendants is the architect who designed the Lament Configuration-inspired building we see at the end of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Like his ancestor, he has no idea at first what he’s done, but the ancestral memory begins to kick in once the she-demon shows up. Before too long, he’s struggling with his own creation while trying to protect his family from the destructive forces the design unleashes. This means it’s about time for Pinhead to show up, and this time he’s brought better Cenobites, including his very own hound of Hell.

That brings us back to the future, and the marines quickly learn the bloody price of their intervention. We get a fairly standard Aliens-inspired “marines walk around in dark corridors and get killed in gruesome ways” sequence before the engineer finally settles in for what they bill as the final show-down between good and evil.

This movie’s failings aren’t in what it does, but rather in what it could have done. There’s a lot of potential that gets squandered, either because they didn’t have the imagination or because they just didn’t have the cash to realize the scope of the story at which this film hints. Surprisingly, the space station is a suitable progression for the series. It lends a desolate air of isolation and melancholy on top of the usual talk about flesh and suffering. I like the idea of technology advancing to the point where it can mess with the design of the box. The engineer uses a robot, for example, to open the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites first appear, they are genuinely confused. The concept of demons from another dimension works well with the outer space setting, given how little we know of space and how vulnerable we are while in it. Something about Pinhead against a backdrop of cold metal and outer space is more chilling than seeing him trying to be menacing while standing in someone’s living room.

The French sequence conjures up a nice, if low-scale, Hellfire Club sort of atmosphere, and the parts set in 1996 avoid the banality of a 1996 setting by having the action take place mostly in the bowels of the bizarre building our protagonist has constructed. And did I mention that there’s no sign of the Camcorder Head and his one-liners? After descending into wisecracking parody in part three, the Cenobites pull back and return to a relatively serious state. Plus, Pinhead gets his best line in the series (Merchant: “And what do you have faith in?” Pinhead: “Nothing. I am so exquisitely empty.”)

Bloodline feels more in line with the first two movies while falling just short of the mark that would have made it a truly worthy sequel. Unfortunately, a lot of the film’s ideas remain half-baked or merely hinted at, and it’s that failure to be what it could have been that prevents this movie from being one of the best sequels in the series. Instead, it is merely good, with some nice shocks, a lukewarm lead, fair writing, and the usual quality performance from Douglas Bradley. Skipping back and forth through time works well, and the revelation as to the origin of the box, while uninspired, isn’t terrible. I was able to roll with it better than I was the “Pinhead discovers his human side” bit from Hellbound.

With more money and a little bit more time to expand on ideas, this could have been one hell of a Hellraiser movie. First-time director Kevin Yagher had a more epic—and apparently more graphic—vision of what this film should have been as well, but he and the money men could never get on the same page. Thus the film was edited without his input, and he felt the need to make this an Alan Smithee film. But we can only review what we have in the end, and that’s a movie that I think is a huge step up from the sublimely idiotic part three, with better actors, a better script, and a creepier atmosphere.

Cenobites and Serial Killers: Hellraiser V: Inferno

Final confrontations have never successfully put down a lucrative horror franchise, and even if widespread interest in the Hellraiser series was waning, fan interest was more than enough to sustain another movie if the budget was low and it went direct to video. So what do you do when the previous film killed off your main villain? Well, you thank whatever hell Pinhead comes from that Bloodline was set in the future, which means you can spend the next hundred years making sequels that take place before that eventual final outcome. However, the departure from the series of both creator Clive Barker (who, after a spat over some pretty substantial creative differences was actually banned from being involved with the series) and regular screenwriter Peter Atkins left production company Dimension Films in a bind. Dimension heads the Weinstein Brothers (those assholes) then either commissioned a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (who would also direct) or, if you believe Pinhead actor Doug Bradley, they had a script lying around that had nothing to do with Hellraiser and did what they could to retool it.

So when you’ve taken Pinhead to the ends of outer space, where do you go from there? Denver, apparently.

Inferno (2000) focuses on corrupt, but not entirely irredeemable, Denver cop Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer, Nightbreed). Thorne’s life is a mess. He has a nice home, a wife, and a child, but he’s also addicted to the dark side of life that his job as a homicide cop exposes him to. He takes drugs, carouses with prostitutes, blackmails and abuses people, and isn’t above the occasional frame-up. He’s never truly despicable, though, but rather is simply a man who seems to possess a need to wallow in the filth from time to time. Although he loathes much about his life, he also can’t give it up. There is nothing externally that keeps him from having a better life; parts of his life are awful because he wants—or needs—them that way.

He’s investigating the gruesome murder of an old acquaintance. At the scene of the crime, Thorne finds the Lament Configuration puzzle box and takes it with him. After accidentally opening the box (though Pinhead maintains that the box is never opened by accident), he finds himself suffering on two different fronts. On the more comprehensible side, he becomes involved with a case in which someone known as the Engineer has kidnapped a child and uses the kid’s fingers as a calling call left at the scene of other murders. On the weirder but no less gruesome side, Thorne begins suffering bizarre hallucinations and dreams in which he is stalked and occasionally licked by a pair of unsettling creatures with long black tongues, accompanied by their friend, the faceless humanoid with no lower torso. We recognize them as Cenobites, and they are truly, satisfyingly creepy. Like something inspired by the oft-referenced Silent Hill nurses, they just about make up for Camcorder Head. This trio is so effective that I say to Hellraiser, “Apology accepted.” I won’t mention Camcorder Head again.

The dreams and the case become increasingly connected, and it soon looks as if Thorne himself might be committing the murders. He seeks the advice of a police psychiatrist played by James Remar, and all I could think of at first was, “Man, I can’t believe it was the fifth movie before James Remar showed up in one of these.” He’s a little more open to the battier end of Thorne’s stories, seeing as he has previous knowledge of the Lament Configuration and what it can supposedly do.

So you may notice that, up until this point, Pinhead has been noticeable by his absence. This is one of the things that irks a lot of people, but I welcome it with open arms. Although they did some rehabilitation in part four, Pinhead was getting overexposed and poorly used in subsequent Hellraiser films. Inferno goes the route of being about the tortured soul rather than the torturer, and I thought it was a wise change. Pinhead’s presence looms over everything since we as viewers know that he has a hand in everything that is happening and that he’ll show up eventually, but he doesn’t make an actual appearance until the end of the film, where he belongs. It never make sense to me that every time someone opened the box, they instantly got Pinhead on the line. He is the architect of the pain, leaving it up to the victim to do the actual inflicting. He should be the boss you work up to. The entree, not the amuse-bouche.

On the surface, Inferno is a grim, somewhat averagely-written serial killer vs. cop procedural that had a Hellraiser movie grafted onto it. I think that’s short-changing the film, though. Another criticism is that the movie gets Pinhead all wrong, presenting him when he appears as sort of a karmic judge who doles out a moral about selfish living. But by part three, Pinhead’s approach to damnation was getting pretty tired. Someone opens the box, Pinhead shows up to deliver a few lines about flesh and pain and pleasure, and then he shoots the chain-hooks into you. There was a lack of imagination in the chain gag after the first couple of times, though. That the punishment should be as exquisite as it is is painful was lost in the sequels’ need to recreate the first film’s signature move.

The way I read part five, everything that happens from the moment Thorne first opens the box is part of Pinhead’s torture of the man. Only instead of just stepping out of some lighting effects and whipping him with chains, Pinhead constructs a scenario in which Thorne is plunged into the depths of everything to which he has an addiction—drugs, a macabre job, corruption—and finally offered a chance at redemption. When he takes it, Pinhead shows up not to deliver a sermon about selfishness, but to reveal that the chance for redemption never existed in the first place. The gradual temptation and breakdown, the exploitation of weaknesses and vices, allowing a man to wallow in his faults and take a sick pleasure in them (even the child abduction case is the sort of thing that thrills Thorne just as much as it disturbs and disgusts him) even as they’re destroying him — aren’t these the things we expect from Pinhead? Isn’t that a far worthier form of torture—to send a man to the depths, offer him a chance at salvation, then reveal that salvation is just a mirage—than just falling back on the chain-hook gag again? Leaving a person with a complete and utter sense of inescapable desolation after giving them a taste of redemption? That is exquisite suffering.

I really liked this one. The story is a combination of the fresh and the stale, sometimes smartly delivered, other times awkwardly so, but overall satisfyingly twisted and grimy. The Engineer case drags on too long toward an obvious conclusion, and the bizarre kungfu cowboy scene feels like it was edited in from a completely different movie, but the positive outweighs the negative here. This is a more thoughtful approach to the idea of damnation; you get three genuinely creepy Cenobites; and there are some pretty good setpieces, like Thorne’s green-lit living room with it snowing inside, dangling chains, and his wife and daughter strapped to that rotating slab of stone. Pinhead is actually a figure of diabolical menace again, the guy who shows up at the end to wrap everything up and rob the characters entirely of any hope they may have once had.

Hell is an Office Cubicle: Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker

It’s nice to get a movie like Inferno, one I go into expecting to hate but end up liking a lot. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pinhead was setting me up, giving me hope just so he could snatch it away and relish my suffering. Well, I guess I understand those who are tempted by the incomprehensible pleasure as pain, and pain as pleasure, that the Lament Configuration represents because, despite my hesitation, I opened the puzzle box hell that is Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker (2001).

After being pleasantly surprised by both parts four and five, I let my hopes get up a little for this one, and the cruel demon that he is, Pinhead used that to torture me. Build my hopes up, then give me a boring movie. Truly he is a master of pain. Director Rick Bota was a cinematographer before directing this and the next two installments in the series. He doesn’t show the eye for a good scene that most cinematographers-turned-director usually show. Everything here is so…flat. Every frame is sapped of all energy and imagination, much like the DVD cover, which is yet another picture of Pinhead’s head.

Like Hell on Earth, Hellseeker promises us something big then doesn’t really deliver. With part three, it was “Pinhead wages war on earth!” That meant that Pinhead caused some manholes to erupt while he harassed a reporter. But at least it was entertaining in its way. Part six is just bland and lifeless. We’re promised the return of Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), the woman who battled the Cenobites at their meanest in the first two films. What we get, however, is a cameo appearance by Kirsty that is so wrong-headed it’ll make you happy it’s only a cameo appearance. The only person in this film less than her is Pinhead.

I liked Pinhead as an ominous presence throughout Inferno, with his actual appearance reserved for when it really matters. But that only holds true if you operate under the assumption that the rest of the movie is filled with other weird stuff building up the final reveal of Pinhead set to his obligatory “Pinhead has revealed himself!” blast of bombastic orchestration. Part five, I thought, did that, giving us a gruesome serial killer movie with surreal Cenobites and oddness throughout. Part six is basically that movie again, but instead of a disillusioned cop and creepy Cenobites, it’s a douchebag in an office cubicle. Terrifying in its way if this is the Hell Pinhead forces you to endure, but as a spectator, not so great.

Said douchebag is Kirsty’s husband, Trevor (a normally capable Dean Winters, best-known in the US as Mayhem from insurance commercials), who has recently recovered from a car crash in which Kirsty was apparently killed. No corpse has been found, however, and police rightfully suspect something fishy. In addition to suffering some memory loss, Trevor is plagued by hallucinations and dreams that result in almost every single scene of this movie ending with him inhaling deeply and snapping awake. Slowly, and largely moving backward through time as Trevor discovers clues to what really happened, (someone apparently watched Memento), the whole horrible truth is revealed, setting us up for Pinhead’s arrival on the scene.

As I said, Hellseeker is basically a more boring version of Inferno, complete with the “is the main character the murderer?” pseudo-mystery. But it has a much less likable character who also happens to be a whole lot more boring. I don’t mind a prick as long as he’s an interesting prick. Trevor is not that. There’s also very little of the surreal imagination that elevated the previous film. Almost everything takes place in a plain old apartment or, even worse, in an office cubicle. The over-reliance on the “it’s a dream within a hallucination within a dream within…” gets old fast and serves very little purpose beyond letting the film spin its wheels long enough to achieve a decent running time. The gradual uncovering of Trevor’s evil and the events that lead to Kirsty’s disappearance is a halfway decent idea, but there’s so little gas left in the tank propelling us toward the inevitable “guy gets the chain-hooks in his chest and face” conclusion that it becomes hard to care or even notice if this milquetoast entry is doing anything right.

Worst of all, though, is the disappointing “final confrontation” between Pinhead, Lord of Hell and Guy Who Mentions Flesh a Lot; and Kirsty, the defiant woman who twice defeated him and made him remember his old human form. You’d think that there would be something epic about this third and final showdown, but it ends up going a little like Pinhead saying, “At last, I have tracked you down!” to which she replies, “Wouldn’t you rather harvest the souls of a few other people with whom you have no prior history?” to which Pinhead has no response beyond basically shrugging and going, “Yeah, all right.”

Really? That’s the confrontation? After finally coming face-to-face with his mortal enemy, the woman who embarrassed him repeatedly, Pinhead is willing to swap possession of her in exchange for screwing with her terrible husband instead, who she doesn’t even like? I guess Pinhead hates an office douchebag as much as the next guy, but when Hellraiser crosses into territory best left mined by Office Space, something has gone wrong. I don’t need to see Pinhead hanging out by the vending machine, sipping coffee from a paper cup, saying stuff like, “God, I hate Trevor. Did you hear him during the last staff meeting?”

Plus, and this is not a reflection on you personally if it happens to be your name, but the lord of pain cannot be successfully combated by a guy named Trevor any more than he can J.P. Monroe. Still, the good thing about this entry is that it’s so bland it becomes very easy to forget. So out of sight, out of mind, and we can move on to the next one. It has Kari Wuhrer in it, which is always the very best and very worst of signs.

Pinhead’s European Gap Year: Hellraiser VII: Deader

Here’s the thing about Kari Wuhrer: I don’t know what the thing is about Kari Wuhrer. There is very little in the career or Kari that I’ve liked, and yet I usually watch whatever goofball piece of junk in which she appears. I like her, and I will follow her into some pretty sketchy cinematic situations. It was inevitable that, even after the dismal Hellseeker, any meeting of Kari Wuhrer and the Hellraiser franchise was going to get my attention. So I sat down for this seventh installment in the long-running horror series with some degree of anticipation that, at the very least, it would offer me something more than a jackass having hallucinations while sitting in his office cubicle. And hey, what do you know! Hellraiser gets itself back on track, at least to some degree. Deader (2005), like most of the sequels, is far from being in the same class as the original, but it’s also far from being in that other class occupied by Hellseeker and Hell On Earth, that dimension of pain where even Pinhead dares not tread. This means the movie falls somewhere in the vicinity of Bloodline (part four) and Inferno (part five) in being a flawed but decent horror film.

Kari stars as chain-smoking Amy Klein, one of those ace “reporters on the edge” who covers the sort of stories that are only covered in movie versions of what an ace reporter on the edge would cover. This means fewer reports on international humanitarian emergencies, and more exposés on sleepy drug addicts and eastern European resurrection cults. After her editor receives a videotape of a young Eurotrash goth type committing suicide only to be raised from the dead by a guy with stringy hair while other Eurotrash goth types stand around and sway, Amy is off to Bucharest to investigate. Eastern Europe is, as you probably know, a favored haunt for low-budget horror films, which will often try to pass off Budapest or Prague as New York or Cleveland. Here’s an instance where the location works, though. The eastern European aesthetic — or at least what we in America imagine to be the eastern Europe aesthetic — lends itself nicely to the Hellraiser world. Certainly, Pinhead is going to seem more imposing when he appears in some crumbling ancient stone building or decaying concrete tenement than when he shows up in Terry Farrell’s posh Manhattan penthouse apartment or an office cubicle.

Amy follows the trail to an apartment where she finds a corpse and the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box. So begins her descent into the usual Hellraiser madness, which includes industrial music party trains, an over-reliance on hallucinations and “dream within a dream” shocks, shoehorning in of the word “flesh,” and token appearances by Hell’s favorite bail bondsman, Pinhead. It’s a pretty nice step up from the last film, and there are some sequences that are genuinely effective. My favorite is the dream-within-a-dream nonsense in which Kari finally discovers the location of the “Deaders” cult, as they call themselves, only to find herself forced to undergo their ritual. Then it turns out that was all a dream, then it turns out that dream was a dream, and she really does have a huge gaping hole in her chest, which kicks off a nightmarish yet darkly comical sequence where she tries to continue her investigation even though she has a huge chest wound that is continually oozing blood all over the place. Her discovery of the industrial music party train after everyone in it has been slaughtered is another wonderfully creepy moment, as is her claustrophobic journey to the Deaders’ hideout.

Deader features one of Pinhead’s most overtly evil moments. The revelation that Amy was sexually abused by a father she eventually stabbed to death is pretty standard shock movie territory, so much so that at this stage in the game, it’s more likely to elicit rolled eyes and “ho hums” than any real horror. But when Pinhead shows up for his cameo, he remarks, almost off-handedly, that Amy will have ample time to spend with her father when she has been carried off to Hell. It makes the “sexual abuse” backstory worth the trouble because that’s flat-out creepy. Up until this point, really, the suffering delivered by Pinhead seemed too fanciful (remember the evil carnival in part two) or supernatural (the ever-present flying chain-hooks) to really be scary. Gross, maybe, but rarely scary. When Pinhead suggests that Amy will be spending eternity trapped with her sexually abusive father — that’s a horror a person can comprehend, and that makes it far more effective than any of the more fantastical nonsense Pinhead might throw at you. After being served up as sort of a cool anti-hero for the past several movies, that one moment makes Pinhead more recognizably evil and terrifying than at any other point in the series.

We also get something that we haven’t had in any of the Hellraiser movies, even the original, which is a downbeat “no one gets out of here alive” ending. In the other films, despite all else that happens, good triumphs over evil, the heroine escapes, the scumbags get ripped apart by chain-hooks, and Pinhead is banished back to Hell by being covered in animated lines while he yells “Nooo!” Not so in Deader, however, which is pessimistic and grim from start to finish. Amy Klein is a damaged, decent person (well-played by Wuhrer, whose talent, I think, was always underrated), but there is no redemption or catharsis waiting for her at the end of the journey.

Of course, as is standard with the direct-to-video Hellraiser sequels, Deader is not without its problems. Once again, we have a script cobbled together from parts of a script for an unrelated movie that has been retooled and enhanced through rewrites to function as a Hellraiser movie. This means that much of the Hellraiser-related material feels as shoehorned in as awkward uses of the word “flesh.” The plot depends on the actions of the Deaders and their leader somehow representing a “trespass” into the world of the Cenobites, but how exactly this becomes the supernatural equivalent of Pinhead telling kids to stay off his lawn remains unclear. As far as I know, merely committing suicide isn’t enough to get you into Pinhead’s wing of Hell; you have to actually summon him. So I don’t know why Pinhead is so steamed that these kids are killing themselves and then being brought back to life.

Similarly, the movie links Deader “messiah” Winter (Paul Rhys) to the Le Merchant bloodline that created the puzzle box, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of what to do with that subplot other than mention it. Certainly, Winter doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that Bloodline leads us to believe are part of the Le Merchant character. And needless to say, there’s no explanation of how Winter is able to revive the dead, though in a movie series where people use a puzzle box to summon demons who promise pleasure and pain but only deliver on half their promise, I suppose worrying about the unexplained ability of one guy to revive dead Romanian goth kids is a bit petty.

True Hell: Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld

Without a doubt, Hellworld (2005) is the culmination of Pinhead’s plan for me. Lure me in, tantalize me, gorge me, indulge me, inflict occasional but tolerable pain, give me a movie with Kari Wuhrer…and then hit me with Hellworld, the cinematic equivalent of Pinhead’s chain-hooks. It’s beyond awful, and not the fun-awful of Hell on Earth or even the bland-awful of Hellseeker. It is a depressing way to end the run of Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead. I can’t think of a single redeeming thing to say about this horrible movie, with the possible exception of “Well, at least they finally got around to having Lance Henrikson appear in a Hellraiser film.” That’s hardly enough for this wretched retread of other bad horror-meets-the-internet films.

As far back as Hellseeker, people had been trying to force the world of video games into the Hellraiser world. Some of the ideas from that unused script by Michael Lent are recycled for the high concept of Hellworld. The plot this time around goes “meta” — featuring a group of twenty-somethings who play an online Hellraiser-themed video game, only to discover that the game may be more real than they realize!!! Oooo! The characters (one played by a pre-fame Henry Cavill) are about as bad as you would assume, possibly worse, and it’s excruciating to be in the same movie with them. Even the token elder statesman, Lance Henrikson, barely registers, and I’m not sure he even realizes he was in this movie, so tired and uninterested is his performance. As the story goes, most of the cast, including Henrikson, was hired last-minute from a pool of actors who happened to be in Romania working on other direct-to-video horror films. When the players are invited to a special “Hellworld” rave for the hardest core gamers, they find themselves in the mansion of Lance, who spins them a yarn about the house being built by the same Le Merchant who made the Lament Configuration, even though that guy lived and died in France. As the kids wander from one room to another, they are slowly killed off, one by one, in the usual outlandish fashion…or are they???

The plot is a mishmash of ideas from other, higher-profile movies, such as Saw. I won’t be so naïve as to suggest that the concept of “torture porn” that defines these newer movies hasn’t always been present to some degree in the Hellraiser movies, but it’s was just one ingredient among many, and it was usually handled, when it was present, in an unusual and creative fashion. Hellworld is just a dull rehash of other torture-porn movies with a dash of whichever Halloween movie it was where Michael Myers battled reality television. And then I guess you’d thrown in a bit of House on Haunted Hill, but with everyone tired and bored instead of gleeful and macabre. The twist at the end, rather than being clever, is one of those, “Are you kidding me?” disappointments that renders everything you’ve just watched not only dull and stupid but also entirely pointless.

The production of all of the post-Hellbound Hellraiser sequels was slapdash and confused, driven less by ideas and more by the Weinsteins’ desire to hold onto the rights to the franchise. This resulted in script after script being dashed off by combining unrelated material with some original (but not, you know, always “original”) ideas. This usually happened after someone was commissioned to write a new Hellraiser script from scratch and, inevitably, came up with an idea that was going to cost more than the pittance of a budget the Weinsteins were willing to give. So while it may be tempting to take potshots at Hellworld‘s writers, Carl Dupre and Joel Soisson, one should remember the chaotic situation in which they were forced to work. 

Still, any horror movie that includes the line, “This is like a bad horror movie,” should not get made.

As for Pinhead, I’ve supported the previous sequels that featured so little in the way of Cenobite action, feeling that they should be sprinkled throughout the film with reserve, waiting to make their big appearance at the end. This film does the same, except that there’s even less on hand, and when he does appear, Pinhead has no reason at all to be there. And once you have the twist spelled out for you, his appearance makes even less sense. On top of that, when he and his crew finally do appear, it’s for a singularly uninspired, uninteresting, and unimportant conclusion. This is where you’ve ended up, Pinhead? Shouldn’t you be spending your time tempting, I don’t know, heads of state and priests and such, instead of some no-name jerk in a cheap motel room? I mean, I know he hasn’t been aiming high, even in the first film, but Pinhead really seems to be slumming this time around.

On the other hand, I understand why even Pinhead would want to show up as little as possible in Hellworld.

Alas, Poor Pinhead

Because Douglas Bradley was an actual human and not a timeless S&M demon from another dimension, age was going to eventually catch up with him and push him past the point where make-up could disguise the passage of time. Or maybe I misunderstood Pinhead’s nature. After all, I don’t think they ever state flatly that he doesn’t age. So maybe we could have gotten a film with Old Man Pinhead, hanging out at home and so very over it all. Or he retires from Hell priesting to open a Cinnabon competitor called Cinnobites. It would have been a better swansong than Hellworld, which is truly an awful note on which for Bradley to end his long run as one of the great iconic monsters.

If there is any cold comfort to be had from Bradley retiring the face pins and chain-hooks, it’s that the poor saps who took over the role of the next two films, Hellraiser: Revelations (2011, starring Stephan Smith Collins as Pinhead) and  Hellraiser: Judgment (2018, with Paul T. Taylor hammering the pins into his face), didn’t find themselves in a bold resuscitation of the franchise. However, even those pins in the face weren’t nails in the coffin. A revival of the franchise starring Jamie Clayton as Pinhead and directed by David Bruckner (whose folk horror film, The Ritual, was pretty good), as of this writing, is planned for 2022. Will they pull off what so few have been able to do? If nothing else, the series is in the hands of filmmakers who want to make a horror film, rather than just a quick buck.

For the original run of Hellraiser films, though…well, Pinhead said he had such sights to show us, and also that our suffering would be legendary even in Hell. And he was kind of truthful on both accounts. There is some pleasure (Bloodline, Inferno, Deader), there is some exquisite pain (Hell on Earth), and there’s some just pure pain (Hellseeker, Hellworld). A series fraught with production woes, cheapness, and chaos still managed to produce some pretty good, often inventive, and occasionally genuinely shocking horror films. That’s not really too bad a track record, measured against the quality of some other long-lived horror franchises. If they are a torture dungeon, they are one into which I descend willingly, happy to endure the chain-hooks of some of the entries as a trade-off for Cenobites in space, creepy faceless tongue-waggling succubi Cenobites, and Kari Wuhrer being annoyed by a gaping chest wound.

Sixteen-year-old me, stomping dejectedly away from the theater after being turned away from Hellbound, would probably be pleased to know that over thirty years later, Hellraiser still has the power to captivate. Actually, he wouldn’t be happy. He was pointlessly angry and sixteen. But he could rest easy knowing that even a grown man, well into middle age, his rage tempered by age and experience, he never gave up on or grew out of Hellraiser and its weird, wacky sequels. Even Hell on Earth. Heck, even Hellseeker.

But not you, Hellworld. You deserve the chain-hooks.