By Oliver Longden
Horror franchises fade and die just like other organisms. What starts off as a vibrant exciting premise winds up puking and shitting itself to death in abject confusion while the rest of society does their best to ignore it like an embarrassing relative in a nursing home. Rarely has this been more true than with the Hellraiser franchise which starts with a film of unique and uncompromising vision and ends a senile dog desperately in need of being put down with a hammer.
Hellraiser is one of the best horror movies of all time. It has been hugely influential and despite featuring some of the most horrifying eighties hairdos ever committed to tape it still has the power to both shock and arouse even in these jaded times. A young woman becomes trapped in a deadly game with the otherworldly Cenobites, sadomasochistic voyagers to the limits of sensation. Three sequels were made, none of which could hold a candle to the original movie. The last, Hellraiser: Bloodlines, was a such an artistic failure that the director refused to put his name to it, insisting on being credited with a pseudonym. That was in 1996 and it felt like Hellraiser had creatively run its course and been put to bed. One great film, three indifferent sequels. Enough good stuff to make the fancy boxed set worth buying if you saw it cheap.
This article is about what happened next, and about how greed and cynicism contrived to produce a sequence of direct to video sequels that took whatever residual good feeling the Hellraiser franchise evoked and proceeded to metaphorically shoot it in the face five times while its metaphorical family watched in horror. Five more movies all released direct to video, and all more or less travesties that serve only to illustrate what a wretched creative business the movie industry can be.
Hellraiser: Inferno came out in 2000. It set the template for future installments by completely ignoring the established Hellraiser canon and by not bothering to feature the main series antagonists for more than a few minutes. This is because, like most of the direct-to-video sequels, Hellraiser: Inferno was made by taking an existing script and crudely stitching in a few Cenobite references in the hope of making a few extra bucks from the horror franchise completists. What results is a desperately mediocre film about a corrupt police officer investigating a series of brutal crimes. As his investigation grows deeper more and more bizarre things happen, reality itself seems to fall apart and he must ultimately confront his own complicity in the events that have led up to the beginning of the movie. At the end of the film Pinhead pops up briefly (in a fashion reminiscent of a Scooby Doo villain being unmasked) to deliver a convoluted explanation as to why nothing you have seen makes any sense. The explanation turns out to be one those Twilight Zone twist endings that only seem clever if you’ve been repeated punched in the face with a fistful of tranquilisers. It turns out the main character was in hell all along! It’s a deeply un-inspiring film that comes across as a pallid tribute to John Carpenter’s vastly superior In the Mouth of Madness. The saddest thing about it is, shoddy though it is, this is still probably the best of the direct-to-video sequels.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) marks the first time Rick Bota directed for the franchise. He would go on to direct two further installments in 2005. His approach is best described as workmanlike. It’s hard to be too down on him given the excremental quality of the three scripts he has to work with, but he comes from a TV background and it shows in the blandness with which all of his Hellraiser films are shot. Hellraiser: Hellseeker has one big draw which is the return of Kirsty from the original movie. Don’t get too excited however, she barely appears in the film, much like the Cenobites who are once again reduced to a minor cameo. This is another below average script trapped in development hell that was given a zombie-like semblance of life by the injection of some half-hearted Hellraiser references. Thematically it’s very similar to its immediate predecessor with the plot involving a man trying to find out what happened to his wife as he battles amnesia, and a screenwriter who hates the audience. The film is filled with idiotic plot twists and people behaving in exactly the way that no one in the real world actually behaves. Once again Pinhead appears at the end to inform you that all the moronic guff that irritated the hell out of you as you watched the film was put in deliberately. They were there because of a massive twist – the character was actually in hell all along! This is known as the M. Night Shyamalan manoeuvre and it never works. Explaining that you’ve been deliberately trying to get the audience to think that a movie was an incoherent shitfest filled with continuity errors and things that make no sense doesn’t make you clever. It makes you a cunt.
Hellraiser: Deader and Hellraiser: Hellworld were both shot back to back in 2005, largely in Eastern Europe. Hellraiser: Deader is the story of a journalist sent to investigate a weird cult that appears to be killing people and bringing them back from the dead. It features a small role from British TV staple Marc Warren who acts as though he’s been kidnapped and forced to be in the movie against his will. The journalist (Kari Wuhrer, an old hand at this sort of nonsense) gets sucked into the cult leader’s plan to control the Cenobites. This apparently involves reality itself breaking down because that is what happens in Hellraiser films now. At the end Pinhead makes his mandatory five minute cameo to once again explain what was happening (most of the film was a drug fuelled hallucination which does at least make a change from everyone being in hell but still sucks). It doesn’t make much sense because, as you may already have guessed, the script wasn’t originally a Hellraiser script. There’s the bones of an interesting film in struggling and failing to get out of Hellraiser: Deader. Ironically, it would have been a lot more interesting shorn of its tenuous Hellraiser connection. Also if you don’t see the twist coming by this point you may need to check that you haven’t had a massive stroke during the course of the film.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is the worst film I’ve seen in a good long time and represents an astonishing nadir in franchise. A group of friends go to a party hosted for fans of Hellworld, a MMORPG based on Hellraiser because in this film the Hellraiser films only exist as films. One of their friends died from playing the MMORPG because that’s totally a thing that can happen. This is one of those tiresome films that thinks breaking the fourth wall is clever. It was quite clever when Wes Craven did it in New Nightmare, but it’s old hat in 2005. Once the four friends arrive at the party they are quickly separated by the host (Lance Henriksen, who seems almost as bored as the audience) and then weirdness abounds. The teens, all about as likeable as a bout of Norovirus, are killed off by Pinhead and his chums in depressingly humdrum fashion, eschewing the gruesome S&M hooks and chains in favour of using whatever seems to be handy. The Cenobites have finally been reduced to sub-Vorhees slasher villains in the kind of middle of the road teen horror fare that would have been considered a below par Friday the 13th sequel. It’s that bad. Eventually it’s revealed that the whole thing was a set up by the host and that most of the film was a drug fuelled hallucination. The Cenobites weren’t real! They were drugs all the time! This is clearly the worst twist since the twist in the last three Hellraiser films. This crappy haunted house movie is the Hellraiser sequel where it’s most obvious that the script had nothing to do with Hellraiser at all. The fact that it’s a bottom of the barrel direct-to-video horror film that still feels it can somehow afford to look down on people who play online games is just the crowning turd perched neatly atop a whole heap of other, much more massive turds. Hellraiser: Hellworld more or less killed off the franchise. Everything went very quiet until 2011 when another film quietly squirmed out into the world with all the fanfare you might expect from a nasty fart.
Hellraiser: Revelations was made for even more shockingly mercenary and creatively bankrupt reasons than the four films that preceded it. This is no small accomplishment. It pensions off Doug Bradley who had appeared in all eight previous films, largely from a twisted sense of obligation to the character, and replaces him with a rather fatter Pinhead who looks like he should be much jollier than he actually is. Hellraiser: Revelations is an incredibly cheap film that comes across more like a bunch of fans getting together to play dress up than an actual film. It’s an ignominious end to the franchise that was apparently made solely to hang onto the rights to the Hellraiser property. The weird thing is that Revelations is the only direct-to-video sequel that actually feels thematically like a proper Hellraiser story, since it’s the only one that was written specifically as a Hellraiser film. It’s about two friends who go on a bender to Tijuana and come across the box that acts as a portal to the realm of the Cenobites. They disappear but some months later one of the boys reappears at the family home. He has escaped from the Cenobites and returned to the world wearing his friend’s skin and determined to do whatever it takes to avoid being returned to the realm of pain and torment the Cenobites call home. All the classic images from Hellraiser are there and, despite the appalling quality of the film-making, I actually like Hellraiser: Revelations much more than all four of the films that had come before. It has the crazy gay S&M vibe that was so powerful in the original movie and, like the original, it is a story about obsession and the selfish pursuit of ever more extreme pleasures. Even better, at no point during the narrative does it turn out that everything was a hallucination. Anyone who cares about production values or acting is going to hate this film, but I have to confess that there were moments when I almost enjoyed it.
There are still rumours that a remake of Hellraiser may actually make its way to the big screen some time in the next couple of years, but with the project currently completely stalled there is at least the possibility that Hellraiser: Revelations may be the last cowpat to be flung at the screen in the hope of wringing ever smaller amounts of pocket change from the diehard fans. Clive Barker is still producing comics set in the Hellraiser universe, and these are significantly more interesting than anything the series has committed to celluloid in the last twelve years. Franchises rarely end on a high note, but few have subjected to the kind of unrelenting tsunami of shit that Clive Barker’s visionary 1987 horror masterpiece has had to endure. Is Hellraiser: Revelations the end of the line? We can only hope.