Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hellraiser Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

"We'll tear your soul apart."

Hellraiser (1987)

Based on a story ("The Hellbound Heart") by the deliciously demented horror author Clive Barker (who also directed this feature), Hellraiser is a tale about an ancient puzzle box - sort of like an occult Rubik's Cube - that, when solved, summons a group of pain-worshipping demons known as the Cenobites. But, the twist is that, in true sadomasochistic fashion, this summoning is treated like a prize, rather than a punishment. Indeed, one can imagine that the experience is sought after by edge-players as a sort of esoteric holy grail of ultimate pleasure - arrived at by way of ultimate pain.

In the story, a drifter by the name of Frank gets his hands on the puzzle box, but when the Cenobites are summoned, he gets more than he bargained for. Later, when his brother's family moves into the house he was squatting in, he finds a way to revive his body through blood sacrifice, but the Cenobites don't appreciate him escaping their clutches, and soon his niece Kirsty finds herself caught between her uncle's threats and the very horrors of hell.

Some of the digital fx in Hellraiser are admittedly a little hokey, but I would rate the practical fx as impressive (nearing the level of John Carpenter's The Thing), and the whole piece works remarkably well based on the strength of its concept, and the truly badass creature designs. The actors are all terrific, and really bring life to their characters, giving this story a strong human backbone, so that it's not forced to rely on the superficial appeal of its fantastic premise.

Hellraiser is a dark and imaginative work, refeshingly free of the formulaic cliches that plagued the relentless slasher sequels that were popular in the late '80s. I'd expect no less from Clive Barker. What's surprising (given that mass audiences are so poor at recognizing true quality) is that this movie was popular or profitable enough to establish an entire franchise. But for better and worse, I'm going to delve into that franchise, to see how the series has evolved over myriad sequels.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Hellraiser established the basic rules of the puzzle box - that solving it summons the Cenobites from some dimension of hell, and that it is protected by some kind of powerful (though deceptively so, going by his appearance) guardian. Hellbound expands upon the mythos, revealing that there are multiple puzzle boxes in existence, demonstrating that the Cenobites were once human (alluding to what purpose the "Engineer" we saw in the first movie may have), and by exploring further the dimension (appropriately named "Labyrinth") that the puzzle box opens up doors to.

Having narrowly been spared the torment of the Cenobites before, by helping them to capture renegade Frank, Kirsty finds herself in the custody of a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately for her, her doctor is doing some occult research on the side, and has procured the mattress that Kirsty's stepmother Julia died on. Soon enough, he's reviving her like she did Frank in the first Hellraiser, but his aspirations are far more ambitious - and he's willing to employ the skills of a mute young girl who is exceptionally gifted at solving puzzles to unwittingly open the doors for him to a total transformation of the soul.

Hellbound continues Hellraiser's inconsistent combination of sketchy digital fx and effective practical ones. In addition to the Cenobites we are familiar with - Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and the female - we are introduced to a new one, who substitutes the other Cenobites' dark and foreboding wit with a penchant for cheap puns, for better or worse. Hellbound's story is not as tight, and it is not as strong a movie as the first Hellraiser was, but it's still pretty good, and an effective sequel.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

Hellbound had the curious plot development whereby our favorite Cenobites (Pinhead included), upon being reminded of their former humanity, turn against Leviathan, the lord of the Labyrinth, and are killed off by the new baddie Dr. Channard (who himself doesn't survive the movie). Hellraiser III smartly brings Pinhead back, even if doing so causes it to muck around with the internal logic of the series. But where Pinhead's cool was derived from his laconic (and eminently quotable) threats in the previous two films, he has a tendency to ramble and oversell his point here. I guess it's a mixed bag, because seeing Pinhead promoted to prominence as the central villain of the piece is exciting, but the story suffers from focusing on the battle for his soul, in lieu of Clive Barker's original concept of sadomasochistic demons summoned from a puzzle box.

The central conflict involves Pinhead's resurrection through a process very similar to Frank and Julia's in the previous films, with the important distinction that he's being revived into the world of the living, where he is not confined to the rules of the puzzle box (namely, whom he's allowed to torture). Meanwhile, a New York City reporter is contacted by the ghost of Pinhead's human soul, who hopes that she may have the strength to send Pinhead back to hell. Unfortunately, the new Cenobites in this movie are not nearly as intriguing as the old ones (Pinhead himself admits this), and the derelict, in his brief appearance, is a lot less creepy than he was in the first Hellraiser. Pinhead's blasphemies, on the other hand, are a real joy to watch, but it's a shame they're not couched within a better movie. The fact is, Hell on Earth has a very direct-to-video kind of vibe to it, and it's just not as good as the first two installments in the Hellraiser series.

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

Hellraiser: Bloodline opens on a space station in the year 2127. Now, this can go one of two ways. It can be an awesome Dead Space/Event Horizon-like mix of hell in space. Or it can be another Jason X. Disappointingly, it opts for the latter, but buffers it with two other time periods in what amounts to a tedious chronicle of the L'Merchant (a.k.a. Lemarchand) family's bloodline, going back to the naive 18th century toymaker who crafted the first infernal puzzle box on a commission.

Unfortunately, the potential for a great story about the origin of the puzzle box is mostly wasted on an uncharismatic libertine in a very Interview With The Vampire kind of setting, yet it's the least eye-rolling part of the Merchant family history. Pinhead appears (with a creepy pet that straddles the line between cool and awkward) in the present day to apply not-so-subtle pressure to the architect descendant of the toymaker to finish the building he's working on based on the puzzle box's blueprints, which is secretly meant to be a full-on gateway to hell (with no explanation for the source of the Merchant family's supernatural powers of design) - instead of the secret "light room" that Merchant's post-21st century descendant is working to perfect in order to, hopefully, destroy the puzzle box and the demons it has summoned once and for all.

This is just further evidence of the dilution of Clive Barker's original concept, with the Cenobites (basically Pinhead with a few lame-o one-off gag characters each new movie) searching for ways to escape hell and invade Earth instead of tempting foolish humans with the tantalizing promise of transcendent pain. Honestly, it comes off very much like some fanfic writer inexplicably got hold of the reins to the series. I didn't think Hellraiser would go downhill this fast, but at least it got two good movies in before the decline.

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

I heard a rumor that the Hellraiser sequels from here on out actually began life as independent projects, with Pinhead written in after the fact (presumably to boost the films' audiences). It kinda makes sense, given that Bloodline put a finish to the Cenobites and the puzzle box, effectively ending the series, but doing so over a hundred years in the future of the timeline, leaving the door open for any number of Pinhead appearances in the ensuing years. Of course, it means that the following titles are probably not going to really feel like "Hellraiser" movies in a complete sense. However, even in the first Hellraiser, the puzzle box existed to support the story, and not exactly drive it, and the Cenobites were all the more terrifying for the briefness of their appearances.

Inferno tells the story of a vice-ridden police detective who finds that the only puzzle he can't seem to solve is the one that is his own life. When he gets his hands on The Lament Configuration after investigating what appears to be a brutal homicide, he enters a very Silent Hill-like nightmare where he is stalked by visions of the Cenobites, and is singled out for psychological torture by an especially cunning serial killer who is known only on the street as "The Engineer". It turns out to be a pretty dark and captivating mystery, even though you know Pinhead is going to show up at the end.

The Hellraiser mythos is slightly out of place here - as the Cenobites are repositioned as a sort of avatar of infernal justice, punishing sinners, rather than the selfish hedonists they're supposed to be, and their preferred avenue of torture is far more psychological than physical in this movie - but, honestly, it doesn't feel like that bad of a fit, and the story works so well, that I can't fault it for a few rough edges around the seams where I can imagine the script was modified to insert the Hellraiser mythology. As a stand-alone story about one man's interaction with the puzzle box, and a closer look at what goes on in the mind of someone being tortured by the minions of hell (again, more psychologically than physically), this is a pretty good Hellraiser sequel, and the best one since Hellbound.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Hellseeker (these titles are getting to be pretty arbitrary) follows very much in the footsteps of Inferno, in depicting another man's personal hell after coming into contact with the puzzle box. The difference is, this movie features the return of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty from the first two Hellraisers, giving it a "canonical" taste that the last movie didn't have. However, she's a good fifteen years older or so, and is almost unrecognizable. The derelict makes another appearance, as well, but his character hasn't been quite so memorable since the first Hellraiser.

The man at the center of the movie finds himself suffering from amnesia after a car crash resulting in the disappearance and presumed death of his wife. Bizarre hallucinations further complicate his struggle to make sense of his life and the tragedy that recently occurred. Like Inferno, the movie is peppered with short visions of the Cenobites, while Pinhead himself, playing a kind of puppet master role behind the scenes of the movie's torments, appears in limited but effective amounts.

Appropriate for the movie that features the return of Kirsty's character, the Cenobites are the closest they've looked (and felt) to the first movie in all of these sequels, yet with the grittier and less colorful fantasy style typical of these later titles. The movie itself - again much like Inferno - unfolds like a nightmarish mystery, recalling more shades of Silent Hill (and most certainly Jacob's Ladder). I think that I probably enjoyed it even more than Inferno. I'm pleased that after the ridiculous third and fourth installments of Hellraiser, the series has picked up its quality a bit, relying more on the dark psychological themes than the potential for tongue-in-cheek humor and action in its premise.

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)

By this point, the Hellraiser films have fallen into a comfortable formula. The bulk of the story constitutes a psychological thriller, with lots of mystery, and then, by the end of the film (with little hints here and there, including the puzzle box being doctored into the story at some point), Pinhead and the Cenobites show up for the grande finale. Unfortunately - and this is most likely exacerbated by the fact that these movies were reconstituted to be Hellraiser films and not originally intended to be such - the rules of the puzzle box are not entirely consistent from film to film, and many plot-convenient liberties are taken. Deader is probably the worst yet, with the Hellraiser mythos feeling most out of place.

The basic gist of the story this time around is that a gonzo journalist heads to Romania to investigate a suicide cult ("the Deaders") after the newspaper she works for receives a snuff film that appears to suggest that the cultleader has the ability to resurrect the dead. What she finds there is the puzzle box (of course), and a really convoluted plot that seems bent over backwards to involve Pinhead and his gang lording over the souls of the cultmembers, and the leader's unclear plan to escape the Cenobites' clutches, which inexplicably involves the journalist.

Yeah, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. However, there are some extremely creepy sequences in this movie, and even though Pinhead's role in the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, when he shows up at the end to dish out punishment, it just kicks ass. It's like a stupid Friday the 13th movie where you can't help but dig the sex, drugs, and nudity, and cheer when Jason does his thing. Except, of course, the Hellraiser series has always been darker and more adult. If you don't mind the movie not really coming together in the end, then I think it's worth watching, just for the nightmare fuel.

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

While I like the de-emphasis on Pinhead and the Cenobites in the last several movies (not because they aren't awesome, but because they're more effective that way), all of these not-really-Hellraiser movies are getting tiring, and I find myself craving a movie that's really designed to be a Hellraiser movie from start to finish. As Pinhead said in Deader, be careful what you wish for - you might get it. Actually, I don't think that's the case here, but this is one of the better integrations of the Hellraiser mythology into an otherwise independent story we've seen for years.

Hellworld takes the unique approach in introducing a cast of characters (almost like the typical slasher cast of young adults) who actually know of Hellraiser in the popular culture, being long-time fans (and addictees) of a computer game based on the Hellraiser mythos (kind of like a sadomasochistic World of Warcraft) - called Hellworld. But when they're invited by the game to a special party for diehard Hellraiser fans in The Leviathan House - a house allegedly built by the designer of the original puzzle box, and said to be haunted - shit gets a little too real.

Excitingly, Lance Henriksen stars as the host of the party, and a Hellworld fanatic. It's kind of lowbrow, but I think it's actually a fun premise, that takes advantage of the opportunity to poke a little fun at itself, and it makes a neat little "what if?" - you get to see what Hellraiser would be like if it were a slasher movie. It does rely more on cliche than is usual for a Hellraiser film, and it runs a little long, but the climax is pretty chilling. To borrow a cliche myself, it may not be the best Hellraiser sequel, but I don't think it's the worst (like others might tell you), either.

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)

Revelations starts - surprisingly - as a found footage film, although that doesn't last very long (which, intriguing though the idea is, is probably for the better, given this movie's poor grasp of how to make found footage work). Two of your typical American male horndogs are headed to Mexico to get wasted and/or laid, but instead (or, more likely, in addition) they find - you guessed it - the puzzle box. Back home, their families deal with the aftermath of their loss, and try to piece together just what happened, until hell finds them, too.

It's a really bad sign when they couldn't get Doug Bradley to play Pinhead in a Hellraiser movie. Like Robert Englund to Freddy Krueger, the character of Pinhead has been defined by Doug Bradley's portrayal, and this is the first time another actor has stuck the pins in his head, so to speak. As such, it comes off like a rip-off of the real Pinhead, in an over-acted knock-off of a real Hellraiser movie (which is saying something, given that at least half the Hellraiser sequels weren't even meant to be Hellraiser films at some point during their creation).

Revelations actually borrows quite a lot from the original Hellraiser - so much so, that it feels like it could have been meant as a remake. It's too bad it wasn't better written and better directed, because it has some good themes, and suitably gritty gore effects (if not as flashy as the original Hellraiser). Plus, there is at least one exciting scene that is disturbingly erotic - for a series based on the more exotic pleasures of the flesh, scenes that are genuinely erotic in a less-than-conventional way are not as abundant as I would have liked. (Granted, the Cenobites' idea of pleasure is a lot different than mine, but still). But, I'm afraid that alone can't save the film from b-level direct-to-video hell.

Conclusion: Birthed from the twistedly clever mind of Clive Barker, the original Hellraiser spun a perverse tale that melded the torments of hell with the pursuit for ultimate pleasure, combining a human story of temptation and betrayal with the supernatural forces of darkness. It inspired an entire franchise, and although its sequels failed to capture the magic of the original, it turned Pinhead, servant of the puzzle box, with his hooks and chains, into a cultural icon of both fear and desire. Here are my picks for the entries in the Hellraiser series that I think are most worth your time:

Hellraiser (1987)
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Note: The first two Hellraiser movies are, in my opinion, the only "real" Hellraiser movies that are worth seeing. But if you're not puritanical about your Hellraiser mythos, then I recommend the following as more or less stand-alone films, with cameos by Pinhead and the Cenobites:

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

And, if you've got some time to kill, and your expectations are not too high, you might check these out, too:

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

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