We Have Such Sights to Show You: A Dissection of the Hellraiser Franchise

Noel Thingvall follows up his Coulda Been A Contender article on Hellraiser: Deader with a piece on the Hellraiser franchise itself. Suitable Halloween reading, I’m sure you’ll agree. 

The Original

Exploding onto the horror scene in 1984 with the first volume of Books of Blood, Clive Barker didn’t wait long to make the transition to film, writing the screenplays for Transmutations (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986). Dissatisfied with how the films, both directed by George Pavlou, ultimately turned out, Barker decided to take his own turn in the director’s chair. He settled on an adaptation of his novella, The Hellbound Heart, pulling together his own funds and additional income from a distribution deal with New World Entertainment that left him with a budget of around a million bucks.

Hellraiser (1987) is about a man named Frank (Oliver Smith and Sean Chapman, respectively in and out of makeup). Frank is a pervert and a sadist who’s travelled the world looking for new thrills and sensations and acts of depravity. One day, he arrives for his brother’s wedding only to deflower the bride on top of her wedding dress. He leaves before the ceremony and the indiscretion is never discovered. During another adventure, Frank comes across a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration, which opens a portal to the dimension of the Cenobites (led by Doug Bradley in an unnamed role that’s never referred to as Pinhead within the films themselves), priests of the art of taking pain and pleasure to such extremes that both fuse together into a single eternal sensation.

Not long after Frank’s disappearance, his brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into the old family home with his daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), and his wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who’s still lost in the memory of her encounter with Frank. When Larry’s blood is spilled on the floor of the attic room, Frank is violently reborn into this world and seduces Julia into luring men up to his hiding place so he can feed and slowly regenerate his body.

Hellraiser is, for my money, the best horror film ever made. Not just because of the sado-surrealistic imagery of the leathered up Cenobites with their flesh modified in extreme, elegant ways, not just because of the horror of Frank’s skinless rebirth and gradual gruesome regeneration, but because of the horror of humanity. Frank isn’t a monster because of transdimensional horrors or bloodied makeup effects, but because of the way he finds deep pleasure out of the torment and manipulation of others. When we see him in human form, he’s a strikingly beautiful man who knows how to lure others into his grasp before leaving them to clean up the mess of their exploitation. In his skinless form, a truly magnificent series of full-body makeup effects, there’s still a power and a grace to his stance, a fire in his eyes, a seductively commanding tone to his voice that takes this being of exposed muscle tissue and nerve strands and turns him into something alluring, something fascinating that you can’t look away from, no matter the horrors. Such is what happens with Julia, the woman whose craving for debauchery slowly grows after Frank gives her a first taste and she gets to the point where she’s making out with a man with no lips, grinning into a mirror while spattered with the blood of a stranger she bludgeoned to death with a hammer, and forced to make a choice between the man who married her, who genuinely loves and cares for her despite being a bumbling bore, and the man who defiled her, who cares nothing for her but leads her to thrills she’d never before imagined.

It’s a captivating, meticulous melodrama Barker weaves as he uses the splatterpunk Lovecraftian nightmare of Pinhead and the Cenobites as a background presence to enhance the story rather than as a driving force that looms above it. They aren’t the enemy, the monster, the nightmare of the story. Frank is. Frank is the dirty uncle in the family who outshines the rest while secretly abusing them. When the story shifts to Kirsty and she first encounters the Cenobites, the story doesn’t go the usual horror route of her having to run from or fight the monsters. No, they’re an unbeatable force and the story instead goes into the territory of ancient fables where she has to strike a deal with the devil and condemn someone else to an eternity of torment so as to save herself from the same fate.

It’s not a film with easy themes or easy answers. It’s touching, it’s haunting, it’s so simple in its complexity. Like Frank and the Cenobites, the film is ugly to the point of being beautiful, monstrous to the point where it cuts to the heart of humanity, gruesomely modified to the point where it feels painfully natural.

It’s a masterpiece.

The Peter Atkins Trilogy

While the film wasn’t a huge success on initial release, it quickly built a sizeable cult following and New World decided to fund a sequel. Barker remained involved as a producer and supervisor of the script, but he was busy with his latest novels and the early stages of getting his next film, Nightbreed, off the ground. He instead brought in a friend, Tony Randel (not the similarly named actor), to direct, and handed scripting duties over to another pal, Peter Atkins. Atkins is an interesting writer full of wonderful ideas and vivid scenes of lyrical, fairy tale horrors, but I often find he lacks cohesion. There’s too much going on in his stories – as I’m sure you’ll see below – and they never ultimately come together as a whole. Despite this, I highly recommend tracking down his obscure novel Big Thunder, a clever horror tale about 1930s era pulp literature suddenly invading present day reality.

Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), continues the story of Kirsty, now institutionalized, as she comes under the care of Dr. Phillip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a closet sadist secretly obsessed with the Lament Configuration. Channard resurrects Julia and starts feeding her cast off patients from forgotten basement cells so she can regenerate. Channard then uses an autistic patient, Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), to solve the puzzle box and send him to Hell, where he goes through the torturous rituals to become a Cenobite himself.

Kirsty comes to believe her father is trapped in Hell, so she uses the puzzle box to open the door and she and Tiffany wander the dark labyrinths of tormented souls, all looming beneath a massive monolith in the sky, a diamond that casts beams of absolute darkness as it slowly rotates like a lighthouse. While here, Kirsty once again encounters Frank, then discovers the original human identity of Pinhead, using it to turn him against Channard when the evil doctor fuses with some kind of giant hell worm to become an uber-Cenobite.

This film is at its best when it focuses on the twisted romance between Julia and Channard, who is more her equal than the controlling Frank, and the amazing imagery of Hell itself. The walls of cold-grey stone, interrupted by views into rooms of souls going through their personal torments, all beneath the massive monument and smothered with an astonishing score where Christopher Young takes his dark fairy tale waltz themes from the first and kicks them up to the level of a biblical nightmare. And Ashley Lawrence continues to shine as an everyman lead who has to use her wits against unstoppable forces of horror.

Unfortunately, Atkins establishes new pieces of the mythos that will carry on under his reign; elements that, while he explores them well, dilute the central concept. First of all, the Cenobites are no longer tied to a dimensional plane of their own creation. Instead, they oversee all of Hell itself, which takes something mysterious and Lovecraftian and instead ties it to tired biblical cliches. Also, the idea of equally extreme pleasure is dropped from the equation, turning it into torment-only torture porn. And the Cenobites are all revealed to have once been human, with Pinhead being a former British soldier who encountered the Lament Configuration during his service in WWI. This soldier feels random and shows none of the perversity that would lead someone like Frank to the box, which sets off a theme in the sequel of people turning into Cenobites with no real rhyme or reason as to who can become one or why.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) went through a share of problems which ultimately landed the franchise in the hands of Mirimax/Dimension and the Weinstein Bros., who still own the rights to this day (more on that later). Atkins originally wrote a very different script that he intended to direct, but the studio wanted someone with more experience, settling on indie genre vet Anthony Hickox.

The original script featured Pinhead, trapped in a pillar following the end of the last film and now fully separated from his once human soul, as the centerpiece of a twisted church/brothel that pops up in a small town, luring people in as the Cenobite tries to unleash Hell on Earth. It’s not all that great of a script so I likely won’t be doing a full Coulda Been a Contender on it (unless you all tell me there’s a demand for it, of course). In the finished film, the Pinhead pillar now finds itself at the heart of a fetish nightclub run by the narcissistic (sensing a theme here?) J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt). Pinhead offers J.P. promises of power in return for drugged up club goers dragged into a back room where they’re consumed by the pillar, causing Pinhead to gradually emerge.

Meanwhile, spunky television reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) witnesses several deaths tied to what turns out to be the Lament Configuration and comes across the box when she meets a teen runaway, Terri (Paula Marshall), who stole it from the club. As Terri is lured deep into the torment J.P. is discovering, Joey must team up with the spirit of the WWI officer who was once Pinhead to keep the Cenobite from opening up a permanent portal between Hell and Earth.

As I’m sure you can tell, this story is a bit all over the place, but there’s still a lot to like. Such as the power-hungry J.P. being lured by thrills ultimately beyond his imagining. Or the genuinely tender and tragic friendship that builds between Joey and Terry. Or some more amazing Cenobite visuals, some of which were directed by Barker himself when the film required a few reshoots.

But the Cenobite visuals are ultimately where the main problem lies. Here, the Cenobites are little more than rampant monsters killing indiscriminately in ways that are sometimes impressive, sometimes ridiculous (a girl watches as water rises out of her glass, forms into an icicle, and spears her), but ultimately empty and senseless. Worst of all, completely random people are turned into silly new Cenobites, like Joey’s cameraman becoming a beast with a laser eye, or the bartender suddenly breathing fire, or the DJ being able to shoot razor discs from a CD player in his chest. The film can’t help but feel a bit pointless as nothing is really done that will carry on in the franchise and the entire story revolves around the human and demon halves of Pinhead needing to be rejoined when there was no real reason for them to be separated to begin with.

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) has the honor of being “An Alan Smithee Film”. Makeup artist Kevin Yagher meant it to be his directorial debut, but ultimately walked off when he found out the studio was making cuts behind his back. Joe Chappelle was brought in to complete the film.

Atkins’ final script for the series is a surprisingly bold multi-generational tale. In the past – 15th century France, to be specific – Philip L’Merchant (Bruce Ramsey) is a toy maker commissioned by a wealthy court magician to construct a puzzle box: the Lament Configuration. After delivering the box, the function of which he’s not aware, Philip watches through a window as the magician kills a young woman and uses the box to summon a demon to inhabit her skin. Angelique (Valentina Vargas) is a classical demon from a time before the Cenobites and their reorganization of Hell, and she quickly kills the magician and seduces the man’s assistant. Philip is killed soon after, but not before he starts work on plans to create a negative aspect of the puzzle box, using light instead of darkness to kill a demon forever.

In the present, Philip’s descendant, John Merchant (also Ramsey), is nearing completion of a building inspired by his ancestor’s designs. He never took the old family tales seriously and doesn’t realize the threat his structure poses to the forces of Hell, which ultimately leads to a confrontation between himself and the combined forces of Angelique and Pinhead.

In the future, John’s son, Paul (Ramsey again), has followed and perfected the designs, creating a giant puzzle box space station that he hopes will be able to seal off Hell for all eternity. He uses the Lament Configuration to summon the Cenobites, but before Paul’s plan can be completed, a squad of space marines shows up wondering why he hijacked what was supposed to be a military project.

This film is often dismissed because it came out around the same time the Critters and Leprachaun franchises also sent their monsters into space, but this one doesn’t feel like a cheap gimmick. The space marines are empty fodder, but there is a solid story at the core of this film of a family trying to undo the hell they’re partially responsible for having unleashed in the first place. The plot is a little choppy from the edits, but Ramsey gives a good triple lead performance and Angelique is a welcome fresh face as a villainous demon, even when she, too, joins the ranks of the Cenobites. There’s also some more amazing makeup effects on display, including a Cenobite dog. I know I’m in the minority, but I ultimately find this to be the strongest of Peter Atkins’ entries, and feel it’s a good note for him to have left the franchise on. Just ignore the scenes with the twins.

Direct-To-Video Hell

After a brief hiatus, Dimension dusted the franchise off for a quartet of straight-to-video releases between 2000 and 2005. All mostly abandon the mythos Atkins added – the Cenobites still operate out of Hell, but their human origins are never again mentioned and we don’t see anyone turned into another member of their ranks – and follow the example of the first with standalone character pieces where the Cenobites play a part, but are ultimately just dark reflections of what’s already present in the characters’ souls.

The best of the batch is arguably Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), written and directed by Scott Derrickson a couple films before he went on to helm the uneven The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. It follows a dirty cop (Craig Sheffer) – the type that steals drugs and cash from crime scenes and uses hookers to distract him from the family he neglects – whose latest case puts him on the path of The Engineer, a mysterious, seemingly inhuman man tied to child kidnappings and ritualistic killings. It’s a beautifully shot film for a DTV release and Sheffer makes for a surprisingly charismatic lead given the repulsive character he’s playing. The ending is a little weak, but Derrickson milks the gothic imagery and serial killer horrors for all they’re worth, and even returns the sense of pleasure to the Cenobites’ pain in a great scene where a pair of female demons caress our “hero’s” chest… both over and under his skin.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) tries to maintain the style of reality blending with fantasy as a person’s life unravels, but its story of an office drone (Dean Winters), who may or may not have killed his wife, lacks the skill and thoughtfulness Derrickson brought to his entry. It’s a weak directorial debut for cinematographer Rick Bota, coming off as little more than a confused clone of Jacob’s Ladder or Carnival of Souls. The script reportedly went through a lot of changes, with Carl Dupre writing it as a Hellraiser sequel, then Tim Day being brought in to first turn it into a standalone project, then back to being a Hellraiser piece. Worst of all, they bring back Ashley Lawrence as the franchise’s first protagonist, Kirsty, and then do noting with her. Seriously, she has about five minutes of screen time and then closes the story in a way that’s completely out of character to what the first two entries established.

For a full breakdown of Hellraiser: Deader (2005), check out the my latest installment of Coulda Been a Contender.

Rick Bota directed for the franchise one last time with Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005), with Carl Dupre returning to scripting duties, this time working off a standalone outline by veteran Dimension hack/producer Joel Soisson titled Dark Can’t Breathe. This entry tries to hook the kids by getting all meta and self referential with Hellworld, a MMORPG social network/game based on the series. Two years after an obsessive player commits suicide, his five friends are invited to a Hellworld themed rave in a mansion owned by Lance Henrickson. Yes, this is the entry where Hellraiser descends to a group of college kids drinking, having sex, and being picked off by Pinhead and his brood. While there have been some bad moments in previous entries, this is easily the lowest and laziest of the series from a conceptual point. Even the ending, where it turns out the five kids were drugged and buried by Lance Henrickson and that the entire film was a hallucination, is more of a copout than a shocking twist. Yes, I just spoiled the ending. You’re welcome.

The End?

The Weinstein Bros. started talking about a remake in February of 2008, when Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton – best know for debuting on season 3 of Project Greenlight with their screenplay for Feast – were hired to write a script, reportedly with Clive Barker’s approval. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the french duo behind Inside, signed on, then quickly left over creative differences, and the Dunstan/Meltron script was discarded soon after.

In October of that year, Martyrs director Pascal Laugier signed on to both write and direct. Barker was enthusiastic and supportive of Laugier, but otherwise uninvolved. Laugier said his first draft featured Frank and Julia from the original film, but was very adamant about labelling it a reboot instead of a remake. In June of 2009, it was reported Laugier was no longer involved with the project. Again, over creative differences with the Weinsteins.

In October 2009, the Weinsteins started promising a remake was coming and that it would be in 3-D. This despite nobody being involved as either writer or director.

Nothing more would be heard until August of 2010, when yet another DTV sequel, Hellraiser: Revelations was annouced, to be directed by DTV sequel vet Victor Garcia and with a script by long-time series makeup effects supervisor Gary Tunnicliffe. We’ll get to this entry in a minute, but Dimension made it clear from the start that this was something they put out just to keep the franchise rights from lapsing due to the remake/reboot having stalled.

Word began to spread in October 2010 that Christian E. Christiansen, director of The Roommate, was signing onto the reboot, with Amber Heard in talks to star and rumors that the Weinsteins wanted a PG-13 so as to appeal to a younger teen crowd. Whether or not all of this is true, it quickly flitted away as, less than a week later, director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer officially signed on to make this their third collaboration following My Bloody Valentine 3-D and Drive Angry 3-D, both promising their version would be a hard R. This was actually based on a pitch the two had made a year earlier, but the Weinsteins instead put them on a Halloween 3 which never came to be. Lussier and Farmer intended to reboot Hellraiser was a new story focusing on “the world of the box” instead of re-telling Barker’s tale of Frank and Julia. Though the team drafted several scripts, word came in September 2011, almost a year after the two started working on the project, that they’d left. Creative differences. Weinsteins. PG-13.

And now for Hellraiser: Revelations (2011), the recently released film made fast and on the cheap just so the Weinsteins could keep the franchise license from expiring. Emerging teenage sadist Nico Bradley (Jay Gillespie) drags his eager but innocent friend, Steven Craven (Nick Eversman), across the border for a weekend of decadence in Tijuana. It’s not long before a whore is dead and Nico has his hands on the Lament Configuration, dragging Steven down a dark journey of murder and sex. Several months later, the two families of the missing boys meet, stewing over the meaning behind the acts captured on a video camera while Steven’s sister, Emma (Tracey Fairaway), finds awakening desires that draw her to a puzzlebox (the puzzlebox) also found among her brother’s belongings. As she starts exploring its configurations, the house is cut off from the outside world, a disheveled and distressed Steven suddenly shows up, and the Cenobites prepare to welcome new flesh.

Given the tiny budget and reasons behind the production, this is an easy film to dismiss – as many have – but I was quite pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it’s shot on a tiny budget with unknown (but not inexperienced) actors in what looks to be one of the producer’s houses that they borrowed for a week. And the dialogue is awful. Really really awful. You know that criticism where some dialogue sounds like an eight-year-old who’s learned how to swear and found a place where he can’t get in trouble for it so he starts dropping F-bombs in every line he can just to impress his friends? That’s the dialogue here. When it gets into cryptic lines about the Cenobites and their teachings, it’s fine, but 60% of it is people shouting at each other with such a saturation of expletives that it feels desperate to be seen as mature and edgy. Which is unfortunate because, while Tunnicliffe’s wording betrays his limitations as a writer (he’s had four previously produced scripts, if you can believe it), the intelligently constructed story shows how much he’s come to learn about the franchise in the almost two decades he’s being providing its makeup effects, starting with Part 3.

In a welcome return to the original, the Cenobites are no longer the technicians of Hell and once again operate out of their own pocket dimension within the Lament Configuration itself, only coming to those who call for their teachings. This film perfectly captures them as a religious society, with those outside mostly looking on with repulsion or fear, yet there’s some for whom curiosity is sparked as pleasure is once again the equal to pain in the Cenobites’ philosophy. To those who are drawn in by the longing, by the desire to explore a higher form of sensation, some will become overwhelmed and seek escape (this film suggests such was the case with Frank and Julia), and others will come to believe with all their hearts. I won’t say who (this article can’t spoil everything), but this is the first among the sequels that sold me on a human joining the ranks of the Cenobites as it builds off his character’s journey and comes in layers and stages, instead of just being the random victim they were in much of Atkins’ run.

The central human melodrama of the two families is also surprisingly captivating as their secrets and hidden ties start to unfold and the box and what it contains are once again a relfection of the turmoil within and a trigger that brings it to a boiling point. And unlike the past four DTV sequels, where the underlying theme of the character driven dramas was guilt and punishment, this entry goes back to the roots of the first where it’s all about longing unfulfillment and hidden desires for forbidden pleasures.

I’m not going to argue this is a great film, as the dialogue really is a chore to sit through and the cheapness with which it was made is quite apparent, but the cast is sincere, Stephan Smith Collins is perfectly fine as the new Pinhead (though the makeup makes him look a little puffy), Tunnicliffe’s effects continue to be expertly designed and executed, and this story actually has something to say about the darker aspects within each of us, a fable to spin that shows this crew, while stuggling with the means by which they show it, understands the original film on a level that every sequel up till now has struggled to grasp.

And that brings this piece to a close. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve spent the better part of the last week fully immersed in Hellraiser and need to wash it out of my soul with some Power Rangers and My Little Pony, lest I give in to these tempting desires starting to flare within.

Noel Thingvall, a native of Minnesota, co-hosts the podcast I Hate/Love Remakes and writes for the blogs The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase, Deconstructing Moya, and Review Journal of an Obsessive Completist. Follow him on Twitter.

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6 Comments

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  1. I have little familiarity with the Hellraiser franchise, and, with a few exceptions, horror really isn’t my cup of tea. Nonetheless, I found myself drawn into Noel’s article. It was engaging, full of interesting insights and described all the movies in just enough detail to make me a bit curious. Not curious enough to actually watch them (like I said – not my cup of tea), but the fact that Noel got me to care at all about a topic I would not usually be inclined to care about is a good thing in my book.

  2. This is a fantastic article, Noel. The writing is amazing and you cover every episode in this series with fair criticism and charity for what works. It’s so rare on film sites to see this type of approach to writing about film that it genuinely makes me appreciate the “hope” aspect of “hopelies”.

  3. Thank you very much for the wonderful comments, Strannik and smallerdemon. This was the toughest article I’ve written to date, but I’m proud of how it came out and glad you enjoyed it.

  4. I am onto Hellraiser 7. I am now determined to get to the end. It is in sight!

  5. Having now watched eight of these movies I have to give you kudos for going through them, because boy, they turn into a drag. It is clear most of the films were seperate screenplays, with Pinhead thrown in at the end in order to fufil the Hellraiser title. Might have been interesting, if after three, they had tried to do a Season of the Witch and simply tell stories with similar themes, under the Hellraiser banner. But I suppose that audiences wanted their cenobites.

    There were some good moments in the films, but they were only moments. Too many of them were trying to make a David Fincher movie…with cenobites. And the last one, Hellworld – boy, that was just bad.

  6. I agree with the others, this is a great article. In fact you are making me ashamed of the rather pathetic review of the first film I just completed. I agree with you in that the mix of pleasure and pain that people experience with the cenobites is part of what makes it fascinating, and it’s sad that people seemed to have lost that point in later sequels. The look of pleasure on Frank’s face as he’s being torn apart at the end of the first film just adds to the horror of the moment. While I may eventually check out a few of these here and there as I run into them, I’m in no rush to go through the entire series.

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