What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.

Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.

Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…

Chiefly, looking at the first Clive Barker written and directed Hellraiser movie, I was surprised at just how British it is, or rather how British it wants to be despite a weirdly Anglo-American cast, and a strangely non-descriptive setting. It’s like it has its foot in two universes.

This is perhaps appropriate for a film which is entirely constructed around illicit sexual desire serving as a literal gateway to sadomasochistic Hell. Barker’s film is not subtle in any fashion, even before Pinhead shows up and promises to “tear your soul apart!”, but it is certainly an effective blend of sadistic sexual panic and lashings of visceral blood and gore.

Michael Koresky for Film Comment believes that:

Barker’s equation of eroticism and blood is particularly powerful for a film released at the height of the AIDS crisis, and it could be taken as either a transgression of all sexual mores in a time of increasing homophobia and puritanism, or a moralizing commentary on the dangers of sexual licentiousness.

Pinhead is certainly presented, particularly as the franchise evolves, into a monster as cautionary tale, a demon who emerges either thanks to the carelessness of those who tamper with the Lament Configuration, the magical box that connects to the dimension housing his cult, the Cenobites, or due to a conflagration between sexual promiscuity and blood-letting. There’s something not just delightfully icky about Barker’s film, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, but also pervy. Barker indulges the kink, tooling up the Cenobites as if they’ve escaped from an underground bondage club, but it’s worth remembering that much of the original is in the build up, as Clare Higgins’ vampish, corrupted man-eater lures victims for her ex-lover Frank as he transforms into a literal monster.

Hellraiser, then, is a story born of extremity. Frank Cotton sought out the Cenobites because he wanted to explore a new level of carnal pleasure, having exhausted the world of hedonism. His only recourse left is to turn pleasure into sexual pain. Contrast this with Ashley Laurence’s virginal young Kirsty, dragged into the horrific events inside the house of her father (played by Andrew ‘best known as Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ Robinson), and who by the end becomes the human audience avatar as Pinhead and his disturbing Cenobites are revealed. In any other franchise, Kirsty might have become a Laurie Strode, but Laurence is rather bland and Bradley, instantly, chews up glorious lines such as “Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!” and spits them out with relish.

Honestly, no Hellraiser film to date ends up being as good as Barker’s original. None of them capture the combination of sadism, grubby under the counter porn shop erotica, ‘80s glam and visceral, viscous body horror in the same way.

There are, by the way, nine sequels to Hellraiser. Nine. More than most people even realise, stretching over a thirty year period, and most of them barely operating within the same continuity. Hellbound, the first sequel, directly continues the story for Kirsty Cotton and Higgins’ twisted Julia and, naturally, works to expand the Cenobite mythology by taking the human characters into the strange Hell-dimension of Pinhead and his forces. While Hellbound manages to continue the gory shenanigans (one sequence involving a bloodied mattress is particularly icky), and should be commended for not simply repeating the trick of the first film, it does fall a little short. It understands Bradley and Pinhead are the draw but without Barker at the helm (he does at least co-write) it only sometimes captures the raw horror of the original.

Hell on Earth, the third outing from 1992, begins the divorce from significant levels of continuity. A brief, exposition-laden cameo from Kirsty is about it, as Anthony Hickox’s picture revels more in soft-focus camp and Zalman King-esque bland erotica (although there is an early sex sequence which ends in wonderfully grisly fashion). Hell on Earth doesn’t in any way live up to the title’s promise but it does give Bradley arguably his largest spotlight in the franchise, delving into Pinhead’s own backstory and deepening the mythology. The first singularly American set/filmed picture in the franchise, the absence of Barker from writing and direction is felt, and despite another Deep Space Nine connection (oddly) in Terry Farrell playing the new lead, it’s all quite disposable.

The fourth picture, Bloodline, should really have been the apex of the franchise, in how it combines historical mystery and science-fiction to create a portmanteau-style trio of stories, set across a 400 year time period, to explore the origin of the Lament Configuration and the fate of Pinhead stretching across generations. The picture suffered, sadly, from significant studio interference that led director Kevin Yagher taking his name off the film, with the product being credited to the infamous pseudonym Alan Smithee (Joe Chapelle completed it). Bloodline has inspiring moments, and deserves credit for its ambition, but it lacks the budget to pull them off (the space effects make Babylon-5 look like 2001: A Space Odyssey) and enough of a consistent hand on the tiller to make them work.

This is really the divergence point, after Bloodline. This is where Hellraiser completely detaches from any sense of internal mythology or narrative structure, and seems to forget that Bradley and Pinhead were, from the very beginning, the breakout factor as to why Hellraiser struck a chord. His appearances in the next four pictures are barely more than a cameo toward the end, in which Pinhead transforms from sadistic, pleasure/pain seeking demonic soul catcher into an onerous lecturer, delivering punishment on the sins of the various corrupt characters in the unconnected and diffuse sequels – Craig Sheffer’s dodgy cop or Dean Winters’ corrupt businessman, for instance. It’s as strange and maddening a creative choice as making a litany of Halloween films and just having Michael Myers pop up at the end and give the audience a wave (Season of the Witch doesn’t count).

Yet there is bizarre merit in some of these later films in places. Inferno, while languid, is also a deliberate tonal shift into a trippy, Jacob’s Ladder-style world of illusions and psychological breakdowns, as Sheffer’s police detective questions reality as he hunts a serial killer leading back to Pinhead and the Cenobites ultimately. Directed by future MCU alumni Scott Derrickson, it is unsuccessful but at least ambitious. Hellseeker, subsequently, manages to completely waste Laurence’s return as Kirsty, all grown up and in an abusive relationship (proving she was never any kind of breakout star here), but it arguably serves as the kinkiest Hellraiser picture since the original, understanding the combination of sex and horror that many subsequent sequels seem to strangely forget, or heavily dial down.

Part of the reason the franchise, which come Inferno moves straight to DVD around the year 2000, takes a discordant turn is that Miramax/Dimension Films frequently buy up scripts and have them re-tooled to work as Hellraiser sequels, a cheap and cheerful production factor that eschews any kind of consistency in the franchise’s development (they largely freeze out Barker too along the way, probably because he would never have allowed a lot of these rubbish scripts to be made). Deader and Hellworld are the most egregious examples of this; both filmed on the cheap in Romania as part of a production deal, and Hellworld does at least inventively try and turn Hellraiser into a cyber-influenced meta-commentary and brings in Lance Henriksen as the bad guy (plus a young Henry Cavill as one of the kids in peril), but the rot has begun to set in by this point.

Indeed it calcifies come the final two pictures to date, which bookend the 2010’s for the most part. Revelations, filmed in three weeks in order to prevent the franchise rights expiring, was so amateurish that Bradley refused to return as Pinhead. His wisdom was born out in how puerile, ugly and wretched the result turns out to be, a grim blend of poorly developed ‘found footage’ and melodrama which despite numerous winks to the original film is almost without merit. Ditto Judgment, some years later, which seems to be in the thrall of Tom Six’s vein of grimy, nihilistic cinema. In one sense, it does at least try to develop some new Cenobite mythology and tap into sexual gore, but technically it is inept in almost every way, if not the nadir of Revelations. Again, Bradley said no, and Pinhead without Bradley simply is not the same.

Despite how at times, the experience of binge-watching all ten Hellraiser pictures feels like wading through black treacle, it was a genuinely interesting, if not always enjoyable experience. I would be lying if I said the films ever scared me, but certainly Barker’s original has visuals and ideas that unnerve and stay in the mind’s eye. Though the purpose of Hellraiser strikes me as less about jump scares or the kind of nerve-shredding terror you might find in slashers, found footage or other sub-genres, but rather to deliver a Grand Guignol sense of high gore and blood-letting, appealing to the kind of horror fan who seeks a thrill as much as a scare.

This is appropriate given the underlying sadomasochism behind Pinhead and his cult. Many of the Hellraiser films seem to be trapped in a delicate balance between sexual conservatism, and punishment of infidelity and sexual sin (there is also a strong Christian refrain in the DNA of the original Barker products, which explicitly ties Hell into more of an overtly religious property than later films), and revelling in the fetishised enjoyment of seeing men and women chained up and ripped apart.

One hilarious moment in Judgment even features three well endowed blondes receiving a bloody cum shot in place of physical sex. This push pull runs through the franchise, which often seems more comfortable leaning into the mechanisms of murder used by Pinhead and company (Hellworld might as well be a post-Scream slasher than anything else) rather than indulge in the uncomfortable questions about sexual pleasure in conjunction with physical pain, even death. Those more interesting, edgy concepts get lost eventually, to the franchise’s detriment.

Both a movie reboot and a TV series are, reputedly, in the offing, particularly after the success of the recent Halloween reboot. It appears that bigger budgets and more proficient creatives are involved. Hopefully this will include Barker and Bradley too. If they do choose to remake the original, one can only hope whoever makes it understands the key principles: make it darkly sexy, make it nasty, make it bloody and make Pinhead a core part of it. 

We’ll see, I guess, if the return of this fascinating, flawed horror franchise serves as a pleasure, or provides us more pain…

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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