To Hell & (to the) Back: The Hellraiser Franchise Review

Hellraiser-horror-movies-7056778-500-313Horror is the original home of franchises. Before Fast and Furious and Transformers dominated the box office, came Nightmare on Elm street, Halloween and Friday the 13th. But it didn’t end there, with Paranormal and Saw as the more recent examples of the still profitable niche for horror.

Unlike the non-horror franchises mentioned above, horror rarely needs a big budget or star power. It can be made around a single concept, often a single bad guy. With low budget comes a profit margin that can cope with less ticket sales.

A key example of this is the Hellraiser series. Borne of Clive Barker’s obsession with blood, exposed body tissue and seemingly S&M cosplay monsters, Hellraiser is a constantly evolving product not unlike the Phantasm series, where the limits of the initial conceit force subsequent films to branch out.

As with Phantasm though, this is not always easy, which leads to some repetition across the series.

To remedy this, the filmmakers spread the film releases about like the McRib or a Rage Against the Machine album (Hellraiser is now in its ninth film over 28 years!), selling the new film as a ‘special event’ rather than the same shit we have already sold you multiple times already. But as popular music has proven again and again, if a market exists for it, the same shit old will sell.


Frank was unpredictable, gruff, almost dangerous. He was the opposite of Julia’s dependable and meek husband Larry. This was why Julia had the affair with him.

When Frank up and simply disappeared, it was not a rare or unexpected thing. He’d show up eventually.

Eventually Frank did, but not the way anyone could have expected.

The reality is that Frank purchased a magic puzzle box in a bazaar market, and when by chance he discovered a way to open the puzzle box, he was sent to another portal. Not a nice one…

But that comes later. With Frank missing Larry and Julia decide to move into the property left by Frank and Larry’s late parents, not knowing it was where Frank was staying prior to his disappearance.

Now comes one of the franchise’s ongoing conundrums, how to find a way to bleed in a certain area. But blood does spill, triggering the first signature moment in the series; Frank’s ‘rebirth’.

After this freaky and gross sequence, ‘Frank-so-far’ calmly announces he needs more blood. Julia, setting aside the fact that Frank is nothing more than blood, tissue and oozing viscera, decides this is a fair course of action, and commences seducing lonely strangers to bring home for Frank to feed on…

Enough about Frank though, let’s get to the money shot.

Elsewhere in puzzle box land, the Cenobites, bizarre creatures who look like Matrix cosplayers after a collision with a barbed wire factory, learn of Frank’s escape. They ponder how anyone would choose to leave their realm, essentially a giant torture chamber where they derive pleasure from the pain of their victims. The nerve of some people huh?

Eventually Larry and Julia’s daughter Kirsty – to this point an afterthought – becomes embroiled in all of this, leading to a circuitous mess of Cenobites chasing Frank chasing Kirsty chasing Julia etc…

It’s all very much style over common sense, shock over logic and gore and gross outs over scares. The Cenobites pop up quite a bit after they eventually find their way to our dimension, but rarely with Boos or Loud Noises to accompany them. What covers over some of these scare free cracks is the grotesque and macabre appearance of the Cenobites, most notably the iconic Pinhead who has become the pop-riveted face of the franchise.

Hellraiser as a film is muddled and lacking in suspense or scares, but it finds a niche through the memorable bad guys and by showing a love of blood.

Final Rating – 7 / 10. Striking visuals cover over a confusing script. There are things to work with here, but is there enough?

hellraiser 2Hellbound: Hellraiser 2

It’s funny that the thirty odd second refresher from Hellraiser probably provided the same entertainment value as watching the entire film. Gore, boobs, blood and the Cenobites. It’s followed by an equally short sequence that seems to provide us with Pinhead’s origin tale, setting up a more prominent place in the franchise for the Cenobites.

Kirsty awakens in a psychiatric facility. The bloodshed that has taken place in her late parent’s home is being investigated, but she is not a suspect. After a special unannounced visit from her father – still sans skin, Kirsty meets a pretty blond who is good at solving puzzles – what an odd thing to reveal! – and meets an older doctor who grills her about the tragedy.

It is the good doctor who proves not so good. His dabbling in the occult triggers the resurrection, thanks to a disturbed patient and a ‘tainted’ mattress, and with Julia’s ‘return’ the doc gets to indulge in his fetish, which seems to be women lacking in skin.

Another escape, and the portal to hell is again opened. The Cenobites head to our world, and ultimately Kirsty and the blonde girl find themselves in hell, which now resembles Dante’s Inferno as designed by M.C. Escher. This film seems to have triple the budget of the first film, but that’s still only about $75…

As with the first film the multiple protagonists and worlds prove too much to juggle without losing its way. In truth despite the muddled plot and thin premise Hellbound is every bit the equal of the first film, it’s just hard to give the same credit to a replica.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. Some new visuals. Some new sequences. But it’s little more than a new director’s version of the same script.

hellraiser 3Hellraiser 3

Sensing a staleness in the force, the franchise sheds all characters bar the Cenobites and moves to the United States.

Joey is an ambitious female news reporter who sees some freaky stuff, but because no camera was with her, no one believes her claims. Joey teams with pretty young goth girl Terri to investigate the source of the freakiness, which take them to a busy nightclub run by a dark, occult loving man who looks like a cross between Johnny Drama from Entourage and Jim Carrey from Dumb and Dumber. He thinks the puzzle box is goth art and not the tiny prison of the perforated.

But the crime of Hellraiser 3 is that it becomes worse when Pinhead and co arrive. Instead of mounting terror and macabre imagery, the film settles for cheap effects and sloppy effects repeated ad nauseum. This lazy ‘here’s what you want kids’ stuff might be fleetingly effective, but it is depressing and strays from the tone of the franchise so far.

The Cenobites look much the same but lack the same menace thanks to the bloodshed saturation. This all seems quite rushed and dilutes the already limited attributes of the franchise. By ignoring the few strengths, Hellraiser 3 suffers the same fate as many inferior horror sequels, where blood and guts are inserted in lieu of original ideas.

Final Rating – 5.5 / 10. This all seems cheap, not so much in terms of budget but effort and care. Dare I say “Americanised”? And the misuse of Pinhead – perhaps the only reliable asset in the series – is unforgivable.

hellraiser 4Hellraiser 4: Bloodline

When you run out of ideas, you send everyone into space…

For some unfathomable reason Bloodline seeks to tell the origins story of the puzzle box from a space station a hundred years into the future. It is an imprisoned man awaiting trial and likely execution who serves as our narrator.

The tale begins in 18th century France with a wealthy lunatic and the toy maker he has commissioned to build an elaborate and beautiful curio. Yes it’s the puzzle box. Whether the portal to hell was purpose built or a happy side effect is not explained, but when it is discovered it is immediately utilised without second thought. Of course this proves bad for those present at the opening.

The action moves to modern day United States in an attempt to build a timeless mythology akin to the Vampire Lestat books. The French sets are sumptuous and colourful, and the performances suitably snooty. This aim is undoubtedly ambitious and perhaps even a little admirable, but all doomed to fail; it’s just hard to romanticise blood, viscera and impalement anywhere outside of Guillermo Del Toro’s house.

Strange also that for a series almost solely marketed using Pinhead’s silhouette, it takes quite a while for him to show said pin-covered bonce, though when it appears he at least has some lovely new friends, and he bought a dog. Probably for companionship.

Speaking of Pinhead, here’s a demon who is far more talk than action. Sure he gets the ‘flying hooks from nowhere’ thing happening, but he’d much rather yak than act.

Hellraiser 4 is somewhat unique among a series that becomes increasingly disparate and episodic the longer it continues. This one tries to build a legend around the Cenobites while simultaneously expanding the horizons to deep space. Neither works, high was proven by Event Horizon arriving a year later and showing how to do space horror right.

This is also one of the last in the series to embrace the oozing blood and various invasive means of causing pain to unwilling humans.

It all ends very abruptly. But it does give us the interesting trivia item that ‘the portal to hell was made by a French toymaker’. So there’s that…

Final Rating – 6 / 10. Were it not for Pinhead and a couple new Cenobite designs, this would be a nothing film (and it pretty much is).

hellraiser 5Hellraiser 5: Inferno

Where H4 attempted baroque space horror, Inferno tells a gritty noir tale revolving around a promiscuous hardened cop.

Think of it as Hellraiser 4: Event Horizon, and Hellraiser 5: Angel Heart and you won’t be far wrong.

Our anti-hero is Joe, a dour and largely emotionless beat cop known for his adherence to embrace cold logic. Joe leaves his wife and child at home one night to take drugs and bang a hooker. In a moment of downtime Joe finds a small intricately designed box. Of course he opens it and passes out, awakening to find his hooker girlfriend dead in a puddle of blood.

This development troubles Joe, but it might be even worse if he realised that he also unleashed a new breed of super freaky Cenobites into the realm, monsters with no eyes and in one creepy case, no torso and lower limbs.

The murder investigation takes Joe into the seedy Se7en environment of alternative types covered in tattoos and piercings. As he delves deeper into the world bodies continue to pile up. Joe sees Cenobites and weirdness at every turn with increasing frequency. He learns about The Engineer, a mysterious figure mentioned multiple times along the trail. Joe wonders if The Engineer is behind the murders. He wonders if his blackouts and headaches are due to the box. He wonders if the box is somehow a portal to Hell – like it was in those last four movies. He wonders where the gruesome bloodlust and macabre element that underpinned those movies went. He wonders why this gory horror franchise has gone down an L.A. Confidential path instead of investigating Hell itself.

It suffers because the Josh Brolin type playing Joe overacts throughout the film, but this is a new direction for a franchise, just not so much a Hellraiser premise, a series about beings from Hell that is now somehow a police whodunit.

The first couple films in this series were undeniably original. Unlike anything else in horror. The longer it goes, the more derivative it is becoming.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. This is a weird and flawed but still interesting film that somehow would be better without the Cenobites and in fact the entire Hellraiser label.

hellraiser 6Hellraiser 6: Hellseeker

Six films in and it is clear that Hellraiser is a pedigree animal that has never been trained, therefore it does whatever it wants with no concern about repercussions. Since the first two films which adhered to Clive Barker’s singular bloody vision, the franchise has veered wildly across genres and artistic visions – with the word ‘visions’ used somewhat kindly in some circumstances.

Now, in a desperate act to bring the film full circle, Hellseeker brings back Kirsty from those first films. Not that anyone who came in since 1990 would know that.

Also not that Kirsty stays for long. In her first scene the car in which she is a a passenger flies over an embankment into deep water. Only the driver, Kirsty’s husband Trevor, returns to the surface.

Days later and Trevor is back on his feet. His mind is still addled from the traumatic ordeal, he learns of his wife’s fate but has no memory of the events that ended with her demise.

Everyone at work treats him strangely, certainly not like a man who has just lost his wife. Outside of work is just as odd, attractive women of various ages throw themselves at Trevor with little or no encouragement. Meanwhile the headaches come, triggering nightmarish hallucinations, and strange figures lurk in the shadows.

The Cenobites and Pinhead have now become an afterthought. They pop in occasionally in cameos like it is a contractual obligation, Pinhead spouts some menacing gibberish, but this is all so familiarly disjointed, the latest in a series of scripts doctored to become part of the Hellraiser franchise.

In this film it seems everyone is in on the joke but me. The detective responsible for investigating Kirsty’s death seems positively jovial and lighthearted, cracking bad jokes throughout like a half drunk dad at the barbecue.

This is made for afternoon tv stuff, a dull procedural in a film series long since off the rails and held together by Pin(head)s.

Final Rating – 6 / 10. The series continues a disturbing trend of becoming more like other films, instead of continuing to define what Hellraiser is.

hellraiser 7Hellraiser 7: Deader

The warning signs arrive early in this one. An Eastern European location, the kind where they bash out four direct to DVD sequels in a month. Kari Wuhrer, an actress who appears in such sequels. A crappy thrown together script with Hellraiser clumsily shoehorned into it.

Wuhrer is Amy, an investigative reporter with a nose for a story and a willingness to get involved. She is sent to Eastern Europe to uncover the fad of ‘deaders’, those who worship at the alter of the newly dead.

At the first location on the trail Amy finds a dead woman and a puzzle box. She receives a message “whatever you do, don’t open the box”. The box is open less than two minutes later…

Amy meets many pale and emotionless people with cryptic, vaguely menacing, messages. She receives help from a strange man riding an orgy train that never empties. She gets guidance from a large shirtless black bald man. It’s all so wilfully weird that I fully expected Julian Sands to show up wearing a robe of some kind.

I’m sure this all had a point and maybe even a message, but it rushes past in an unfortunate mediocre blur of faux blackness and emo blandness. The only sorrow here comes from realising you just watched it.

And amidst the strange meetings and a stream of dream sequences, Pinhead makes three guest appearances to threaten things he no longer does. Seriously, all this talk of hell, perpetual suffering and endless torture, when all that ever happens is the quickest of quick deaths. It’s how I would imagine it if supermodels ran a brothel catering to teenage boys; lots of leading talk followed by a sudden full stop.

Hellraiser 7 at least tries to tick all of the puzzle boxes. It has violence, gore, sex and nudity aplenty, but somehow manages to get it all wrong. It is cheap and nasty but too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter.

Final Rating – 5 / 10. Pinhead can’t even get prime position on the poster any more. does this mean the puzzle box is the star?

hellraiser 8Hellraiser 8: Hellworld

This entire movie is a cheat code. A group of gamers engrossed in a fantasy game based upon the Hellraiser mythology – which I summarise as; someone opens box, bad things come out and bore us with ominous chat – are invited to a tournament of sorts at a large well appointed mansion.

Upon arrival they are met by Lance Henrickson, the owner of the home and facilitator of the tournament. He shows the young people his museum of weird stuff, tells them how seriously he takes the game, and they all toast to what a cracking weekend they will have.

They emerge to an already in full swing party, a debaucherous alcohol fuelled event where everyone wears strange masks to conceal the identity, masks that they constantly take off anyway. There are odd conversations, prescient meetings and sexual encounters.

Is this the pre-party or is this the game? Is this all really real? Or just really boring?

Oh it’s boring. Our five ‘heroes’ find themselves stumbling into and out of situations that usually end with one of them in a large cold room full of surgical equipment. Pinhead arrives but he is too jaded with all of this. In one scene he gives a quick, dull and all too familiar speech about sadness and suffering and the like, then he cuts off the guy’s head with a meat cleaver.

Mmmmm, that’s some quick suffering.

We’re now eight films into this series and haven’t seen Hell in six films, and for the last four the suffering has all been inflicted upon the viewer. I might marginally correct myself there, in this film I saw Hell, and it looked like a  cheap made-in-Eastern-Europe slasher series featuring a sleepwalking Lance Henrickson.

This is a Nine Inch Nails video with Cenobite cosplayers and dark themes, which is to say ANY Nine Inch Nails video – and they get to the point in four minutes. This drags on for ninety…

Final Rating – 4.5 / 10. Hellraiser 7 was lousy, but at least it tried to be something, this settles for its fate before it begins.

hellraiser 9Hellraiser 9: Revelations

It seems H9 gets a bad rap as the only film in the series to not have Doug Bradley as Pinhead. If that is the case well boo-fucking-hoo! I mean popping up every five years or so to stand dead still while delivering six to twelve lines of monotone dialogue? How to replace that? And it’s not like British actors are starving, they seem to play the role of every second American in every blockbuster film. Aren’t Americans good at being themselves?

In any case a totally different bald guy happy to volunteer as a light globe pin cushion combo is on hand here, and the results, whole still highly underwhelming, are a significant step up in quality from recent times.

The core reason is a return to what once worked. The ‘revelations’ here might actually be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Pinhead is back with the Cenobite Supremes – all bargain basement versions though in this cheaper than cheap production. Also back is the big weird rotating ‘soul kebab’ that seems to collect chunks of flesh and severed faces as trophies, and the ‘reanimate on through bloody mattress’ trick that made the first couple films so memorably gross.

And all of this is built around a tale in which a pair of American dicks head to Mexico for some good old fashioned debauchery before abruptly disappearing…

… Call of the search party. It turns out they opened a puzzle box, and somehow this lead to the Cenobites appearing as if from cinema purgatory.

The plot is patently ridiculous, in keeping with the tone since film #2, but with better gore, the return of the classic motifs, and a solid enough Pinhead replica, this was passably awful. A marked improvement on recent efforts.

Final Rating – 5.5 / 10. This is like a dodgy cover band singing the greatest hits of a mediocre group… A boring version of something not great to begin with.

hellraiser___puzzlebox_by_lady_die-d839wmnIn summation

When I launched into the Phantasm franchise recently I felt guilty. I mean why bag something that was never going to be much good in the first place? But now I feel even more torn, Hellraiser might have started with an original concept, but it has turned out to be an increasingly frustrating, increasingly lazy stream of episodes that have moved further and further away from what little assets the franchise once held.

Fair enough films 3 through 5 tried – and failed – to take Pinhead in new directions, but everything since has been a quickie cash in capitalising on the gullibility of the fan base and their fervent hope that someone will one day craft the definitive version of Clive Barker’s vision.

I maintain that the most interesting the entire series took place in the first two films where we got a glimpse into the world of the Cenobites. Whether it was Hell or not is irrelevant, what is relevant is that it was a freaky, disorienting and claustrophobic place. A place rife with design possibilities. Instead every film since has gone somewhere else; America, France, Mexico, Eastern Europe, outer space. It’s like a game you play with toddlers when you give every answer but the obvious one, it’s momentarily amusing but destined to leave all frustrated. Surely now with the advances in cgi crafting a Hellish landscape can’t be too hard – look what Mad Max just did…

pinheadLike a sportsman a decade beyond their prime Pinhead hasn’t had ‘it’ for a long time now. Sure, he talks a good game and looks the part, but the glory days are specks in the rear view mirror, and the prospect of a great new Hellraiser film is as likely as Pinhead finding himself a lovely new hat that fits. He might make for an iconic dvd cover, but as a horror icon he’s sadly lacking.

The fact that Clive Barker himself is allegedly behind a total reboot now eight years into development Hell says it all really. If he can’t get this right no one can, and maybe it’s time to acknowledged that and move on once and for all.

Because the last five or so films haven’t been scary, they’ve only been sad, and adding to the thirty years of teasing is just plain mean.


About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
This entry was posted in Crappy Movies, Film, Movie Marathons, Movie Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.