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Hellraiser Series Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at the films of Clive Barker. An earlier post covered the various films adapted from Barker’s literary work and the three films he directed. This post will cover the Hellraiser series with which Barker has had a complicated relationship. This commentary owes a lot to Paul Kane’s book The Hellraiser Films and their Legacy.

The signature piece of Clive Barker’s filmography, and arguably his most significant contribution to horror and fantasy, was 1987’s Hellraiser. This modestly budgeted film spawned a franchise that has inspired sequels, fan films, comic books, performance art, and all sorts of consumer products and memorabilia.

The original Hellraiser is the story of the Cotton family. Larry and his wife Julia move into the husband’s childhood home. He is a painfully average husband and Julia wants more from life, which she once found in the arms of Larry’s bad boy brother Frank. Julia discovers that Frank is in fact a living corpse hiding in the attic, having been killed by creatures unleashed by a magical puzzle box. Frank convinces Julia to bring him victims so that he can regenerate his body. Meanwhile, Larry confides his insecurities to his adult daughter Kirsty.

Hellraiser is the story of a family that is destroyed by secrets and infidelity but the signature elements of the film were the Lament Configuration, a magic puzzle box that opens pathways to other worlds, and the Cenobites, scarified and leather clad experts in the art of sadomasochistic pain and pleasure. The Cenobites are led by Pinhead, played by Doug Bradley. The character has a graph cut into his face with nails protruding from each intersection. Although he’s only in Hellraiser for a few minutes, Pinhead was put on the posters and marketing materials. He was the face of the film and later the franchise. The striking makeup was complemented by Bradley’s performance. Rather than hamming it up, Bradley’s performance as Pinhead was restrained and the character was given some deliciously dramatic dialogue. The character quickly joined Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees among the great horror icons to come out of the 1980s.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II

After Hellraiser was a success, a sequel was ordered. Clive Barker wrote a story treatment but the script would be authored by Barker’s associate and Dog Company alumnus Peter Atkins. Tony Randall took over directing duties. Hellbound: Hellraiser II picked up right where the first film left off. Kirsty Cotton is now institutionalized in a hospital run by a mad doctor who is obsessed with the secrets of the Lament Configuration and once again the doors to the beyond are opened. But as the title implies, the action moves from our world to the realm of the Cenobites and Hellbound opened up the scope of the Hellraiser franchise.

Hellbound is a messy sequel in part owing to its rushed production. The movie was in theaters about fourteen months after the debut of its predecessor and the production experienced some behind the scenes hiccups as the script was hurriedly rewritten to account for changes in the cast and a fluctuating budget. However, the quick turnaround allowed the filmmakers to retain most of the cast and crew from the original Hellraiser which gave the sequel a look and feel that are of a piece with its progenitor. None of the subsequent Hellraiser films would ever quite feel the same.

The messiness of Hellbound is also due to its ambition. This was still a low budget picture and what Hellbound may have lacked in narrative coherence it made up for in scale, showmanship, and audacity. It is a grotesquely handsome film. The hell imagined on screen is a labyrinth and the picture has some interesting ideas that are impressively visualized. It is also extremely gory, pushing the limits of on-screen viscera in 1988. The movie was significantly cut down to achieve an R rating but the unrated cut is the version most widely available.

Among the impressive qualities of the first two Hellraiser films is the music score by Christopher Young. His music to the first picture was frightening and set a mood without telegraphing the scares. Young picked up on Hellraiser’s grotesque elegance and communicated that idea musically. Hellbound exaggerated those qualities and Young’s score did the same. His music gave Hellbound a sense of grandness and scale that suited its title. Collectively, Young’s first two Hellraiser scores are among the best horror film music around.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

After the successive releases of Hellraiser and Hellbound, the franchise took some downtime. In the interim the rights to Hellraiser changed hands. In order to get the first film made, Clive Barker had sold all the rights to New World Pictures and in the early 1990s most of that company’s catalog was acquired by Trans-Atlantic Pictures. Trans-Atlantic began preparing sequels to some of the marketable New World films, Hellraiser among them.

Released in 1992, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth was set some years after the events of the previous movie. A television news reporter investigates a supernatural death that leads her to an unscrupulous nightclub owner who possesses a stone pillar in which Pinhead is trapped. Now a full-fledged villain, Pinhead escapes from his imprisonment and goes on a rampage.

Hellraiser III is narratively and stylistically different from the two previous movies and from much of what would come later. It’s very much a product of the late 1980s and early 90s; this is the MTV Hellraiser film. Hellraiser III features a soundtrack of heavy metal music that was popular at that time and slick production values while doing away with the cerebral and sexual explorations of the first two pictures in favor of a louder and more action-oriented story.

Hellraiser III is really Pinhead’s movie. He moved to the center of the action and the script filled in the character’s backstory. Peter Atkins returned to write the script and Doug Bradley resumed the role of Pinhead and Hellraiser III is the best combination of their talents. Atkins’ script gives Pinhead several monologues in which he elucidates on pain and pleasure and Bradley delivers that dialogue with gusto. Whatever Hellraiser III’s flaws, it gives Pinhead several of his best moments in the series.

Clive Barker was not involved in Hellraiser III as it was developed and shot. It wasn’t until the movie was in post-production that he was consulted. During this time, Dimension Films, a division of Miramax, acquired the rights to Hellraiser and Bob Weinstein reached out to Barker to get his input on shaping the final cut. Barker provided his notes and was given executive producer credit. Things went well enough that Barker directed the tie-in music video for the Motorhead song “Hellraiser” which featured Pinhead playing chess with Lemmy.

The Dimension Era

With Hellraiser III, ownership of the franchise transferred to Dimension Films and they would oversee the series during its most chaotic phase. After the success of the third film, Dimension began developing a fourth movie and Clive Barker resumed his relationship with the series as a producer along with Peter Atkins writing the script and Doug Bradley starring as Pinhead.

The original Hellraiser was the story of the Cotton family, Hellbound established the metaphysics of this fantasy world, and Hellraiser III was Pinhead’s movie. The fourth film, titled Hellraiser: Bloodline, was the story of the Lament Configuration. Taking place in three parts, Bloodline told the history of the box and the lineage of its creator starting in eighteenth century France, moving to 1990s Manhattan, and culminating on a the 22nd century spaceship. Bloodline was more in keeping with the tone of the first two pictures than the third film and it has a broad scope and some ambitious ideas.

Bloodline was officially directed by Alan Smithee, which is a moniker directors use when they take their name off a movie. On set, Bloodline was directed by Kevin Yagher, an accomplished special effects artist who had worked on the Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play films.  Yagher’s version unfolded in a linear fashion and ran about 100 minutes. Although Yagher’s film reflected Atkins’ approved script, the studio was unhappy in part because Pinhead did not show up until halfway through the picture. They insisted on reshoots and reedits which were overseen by Joe Chapelle, who had recently directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers which had its own difficult production. This version of Bloodline was told in a frame narrative and only ran eighty-five minutes. Yagher took his name off the picture and hasn’t directed since. Bloodline failed at the box office. This would be the last Hellraiser film to play in theaters.

The series took another hiatus until 2000. At this point Dimension Films quickly turned out a series of direct-to-video Hellraiser films. Doug Bradley continued to act as Pinhead and he was the only one who remained from the first four movies. In some ways this is the wildest period in the Hellraiser franchise. These movies took broad swings, some of which were successful and others that were not.

The first of these films was Hellraiser: Inferno. The story was adapted from an existing script about a detective investigating a series of murders with Pinhead and the Lament Configuration retroactively worked into it. Inferno had the distinction of being the feature film directorial debut of Scott Derrickson who has since helmed Sinister, Doctor Strange, and The Black Phone. Derrickson has some talent for horror but he also comes from a specifically Christian point of view (as seen in his film The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and that perspective was at odds with the metaphysics and mythology of the existing Hellraiser series. Clive Barker spoke out publicly against Inferno and Derrickson defended his film, saying that he had subverted the franchise with a point of view that Barker did not share. Ultimately, Inferno was a pretty good movie but not a good Hellraiser movie.

At this point Rick Bota entered the series and directed three installments starting with Hellraiser: Hellseeker. This film was a direct sequel to the first two pictures as it brought back Kirsty Cotton, again played by Ashley Laurence. Rick Bota sought out Clive Barker’s input and Barker offered some notes on Hellseeker. Bota’s next two Hellraiser films were shot back-to-back. Hellraiser: Deader was another installment that inserted Pinhead and the Lament Configuration into an existing script, in this case the story of a cult, and like Inferno it played loose with the series’ continuity and internal logic. This was followed by Hellraiser: Hellworld which took a meta-approach to the series in a story of gamers who gather at a mansion. The cast included Lance Henriksen and Henry Cavill. Hellworld would be Doug Bradley’s last appearance as Pinhead.

Dimension Films would make two further Hellraiser movies which apparently were greenlit solely to hold onto the rights to the series. The first was 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations which featured Stephan Smith Collins as Pinhead. Unlike several other Dimension Hellraiser pictures, Revelations was at least germane to the original film because it lifted dialogue and scenarios directly from it. However, Revelations was extremely cheap. The production budget was reportedly $350,000 (compared to Hellworld’s $3 million) and Revelations looks awful. However, the same budget was afforded to 2018’s Hellraiser: Judgement which looks considerably better. Judgement was another Hellraiser crime story crossover that owed a lot to Se7en with Paul T. Taylor cast as Pinhead. When Dimension Films invoked Clive Barker’s name in the marketing materials for Revelations, Barker had none of it. He tweeted, “If they claim its [sic] from the mind of Clive Barker,it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”

The Dimension Films era of the Hellraiser series was a messy one. A few good titles were produced but overall this body of films represents the tension of ongoing franchises. As Doug Bradley himself has pointed out, “If something is going to have the temerity to claim the name of mythology for itself, it cannot be finished or immutable: it must be fluid, constantly changing and modifying, and have the ability to be one thing today and something quite different tomorrow.” Art demands the ability to grow which necessarily means moving beyond the original conception. Stories and characters that don’t do that are doomed to creative atrophy. That’s no excuse for shoddy work but growth means taking risks and potentially diluting the meaning of the property so that it no longer represents what made it interesting or unique in the first place. This tension is playing out in many of the most popular horror, sci-fi, and fantasy franchises active today.

Hellraiser 2022

Outside of cinema, Hellraiser continued in a variety of mediums. Hellraiser comic books were produced, including a crossover with Nightbreed. Barker brought Pinhead’s story to a close with 2015’s The Scarlet Gospels in which the character crossed paths with Harry D’Amour. A Hellraiser television series is in development at HBO with David Gordon Green.

In 2020 Clive Barker reclaimed the rights to Hellraiser by taking advantage of provisions in the copyright law that allow creators to reassert ownership of their characters and stories. Spyglass Entertainment was already preparing a new Hellraiser film directed by David Bruckner. Barker came aboard as a producer.

2022’s Hellraiser is not a remake of the 1987 picture. Instead, the filmmakers return to the core concept of Hellraiser, also using elements from Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and apply it to a story about addiction. Riley, a woman putting her life back together while in recovery, inadvertently causes the deaths of people around her when she discovers the Lament Configuration. The premise is an apt metaphor of addiction. It dramatizes the way addiction hurts and destroys not only the addict but also the people in their orbit and the different stages of the box parallel the need for greater stimulation and the way addiction can promise false transcendence. Jamie Clayton takes over the role of Pinhead, now credited as The Priest. Like Doug Bradley, Clayton is restrained and lets the makeup do the work but this is a distinctly different character and Clayton is a worthy heir to the role. It’s also a beautifully crafted film with a polish we haven’t really seen in this series combined with an unrelenting violence that makes for an interesting tension.

The new Hellraiser film is truly a reboot as it reestablishes the story and the franchise and sets up a new era. Where the Hellraiser films go from here is unclear. Barker now has control over the property that he didn’t previously possess and hopefully he can bring some clarity of vision and control of quality that was lacking in the Dimension Films era. But it is also important that the series continue to grow and evolve in ways that offer new angles. And unlike some other horror franchises, Hellraiser is ripe for exploration.

One Comment

  1. […] Hellraiser was a financial success and even managed to get some good reviews at a time when the horror genre was not so critically appreciated. The movie inspired a series of sequels, most recently in 2022, as well as other media. I’ve addressed the Hellraiser series in greater depth in another post. […]

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