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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

The Hellraiser Series

Here’s a piece I wrote a while back for the late Shivers magazine – covering Hellraisers 5 through 8.

Whatever happened to the Hellraiser franchise?

Fifteen years ago, the first issue of Shivers had Doug Bradley’s Pinhead on the cover and the hot topic was Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.  We gave extensive coverage to the making (and rejigging) of Hellraiser: Bloodline, which wound up as ‘un film de Alan Smithee’ when original director Kevin Yagher (and replacement Joe Chappelle) opted to go uncredited on the botch no one wanted to be blamed for.  Bloodline scored a brief, unsuccessful theatrical release in the US but crept out straight to video (remember video?) in the UK.  However, there have been four Hellraisers since then, only one of which has even had a non-theatrical showing this side of the pond.  Given that Hellraiser was at least partially a British film, it seems strange that – with a box set of the Mirror Mirror films on the UK market and every Leprechaun movie on rotation on the Zone Horror channel – the franchise is now nearly invisible in the land of its spawning, even if the last two Romanian-shot films were cast out of London and littered with British actors like Marc Warren, Paul Rhys and Georgina Rylance.

It’s often said you can tell a series has lost confidence in itself when the studio drops the numeral from the sequel title.  But it also tends to be the point when a one-off that has stretched to a sequel (or two) turns into a franchise.  In the case of the Hellraiser films, there were two behind-the-scenes turning points that led to this state of affairs.  The first came during production of the very first Hellraiser back in 1986, when New World Pictures insisted that some of the British supporting cast be dubbed with American accents.  Clive Barker’s script was written with a British setting, though two of the main characters were American, but the studio wanted an all-Yank picture.  A side-effect of this is that the film features a surreal conversation between American heroine Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and her formerly Brit boyfriend (Robert Hines) in which they discuss the differences between their national temperaments even though they both seem to come from the same country.  The awkwardness, along with Hines’ frankly useless character, was written out in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which picks up the story with a very American cop interviewing Kirsty and – though still shot in Britain – is plainly set in New York (and Hell).

The second turning point came after the dissolution of New World and the independent production of Hellraiser III when director Anthony Hickox screened a rough cut for Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who were establishing their Dimension Pictures sub-label for genre material and looking for properties.  The Weinsteins gave Hickox money for reshoots (‘all the scenes that are in the trailer’) and bought the film for release – then greenlit Bloodline.  Though series creator Clive Barker has retained various credits, from ‘Clive Barker Presents’ through to ‘based on characters created by’, and Doug Bradley has stayed under the pins (originally, nails) throughout, continuity on and offscreen has taken a beating from Bloodline on.  Pete Atkins, who scripted the first three sequels, departed to create the Wishmaster series; as a parting gift, his three-part script for Bloodline (set in the past, present and future) delivered Pinhead in Space and a more final finish than most sequels manage, which means that subsequent entries (like the follow-ups to Leprechaun in Space and Jason X) have to be set between the second and third acts of Bloodline, creating a continuity nightmare about the successive owners of that puzzle box between 1996 and the 22nd Century.

The job of the Weinsteins version of Hellraiser III was to turn a spiky concept into a franchise formula which could be recycled.  So it was no surprise that the would-be frame-breaking Bloodline would be a troubled production – with one group of creatives trying to wrap the Hellraiser thing in epic style, overseen by producers who wanted something less challenging and more sequel-friendly.  Purportedly, Dimension were worried there weren’t enough Pinhead scenes in Yagher’s cut of Bloodline; which is odd, since he gets far less to do in all four follow-ups (presumably made under the thumb of the Weinsteins) than in the three Atkins-scripted films.  Just as Freddy, Jason (from Friday the 13th, Part 2, at least), Chucky or the Alien are the faces of their franchises, Pinhead is the essential of a Hellraiser movie (some almost do without the box), though he was a bit player (‘Lead Cenobite’) in the first film.  By landing a spot on the Hellraiser poster, Pinhead became synonymous with the series (imagine if all George Romero zombie films had to be built around the little girl ghoul from Night of the Living Dead).  Pinhead was seemingly dubbed by the fans — it’s not a very Barkery handle (he prefers to use distinctive surnames for his ‘monsters’) and the name was already more aptly being used in the Puppet Master mini-franchise (that Pinhead actually is a pinhead).

So, what has been happening with the box since Hellraiser: Bloodline?

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), directed by Scott Derricksen, comes literally down to Earth, and is set for no apparent reason in Denver, Colorado.  Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer), mildly addicted to puzzles and games, finds the Lament Configuration at the scene of the gruesome dismemberment of an old schoolmate, then sinks into a spiral of madness as more of his friends, co-workers, acquaintances and relations are flailed to death with spiked chains and severed child-sized fingers are left near the bodies.  Apparent family man Thorne, whose misdemeanours extend to cocaine-fuelled trysts with hookers, opens the box and takes a hallucinatory trip into a Hell which looks like the house where he grew up, then finds himself tracking ‘the Engineer’ — a shadowy underworld figure with heavy connections in the bondage/piercing underground, organised crime and the infernal.  A police-affiliated counsellor-priest (James Remar) is too helpful and sympathetic not to turn out to be the Engineer and also (very briefly) Pinhead (purists will howl that the Engineer and Pinhead were separate entities in Hellraiser).  After Thorne has confronted and shot dead the risen victims of his own betrayals, he discovers (spoiler!) that the severed fingers come from his own younger self and he has gradually been murdering his own innocence.  It might not make sense, but it ends a Chinese box succession of waking-up-from-a-nightmare jumps as Thorne, torn apart by chains in a Hellraiser image too often reprised, realises that he is trapped in his own personal hell.

It may be admirable or it may be a side-effect of desperation, but a feature of the Hellraiser series is that, like the three Psycho sequels, each entry takes a different approach (or, more crassly, steals from different sources).  Here, Derricksen and Paul Harris Boardman, who had scripted Urban Legend: Final Cut, go with a Se7en-style cop/serial killer storyline, while borrowing a little too literally from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in writing Detective Thorne.  One-time star of the non-franchise-spawning Nightbreed, Sheffer makes an oblique connection with Barker’s fictional world.  Oddly, he gives the sort of harrowed, intense performance which would have helped Nightbreed, in which he plays monster hero too blandly – he also blows out of the water the tired playing of Bruce Ramsay and Dean Winters, who are fatally draggy as the immediately preceding and following Hellraisers.  In the context of the series, Inferno‘s most distinctive aspect is a display of puritan attitudes Barker would be hard-pressed to swallow (Derricksen followed up with the extremely conservative The Exorcism of Emily Rose).  In Hellraiser, interesting characters seek damnation, and are almost exultant when tortured (remember Andrew Robinson’s ‘Jesus wept!’).  This is muted in the Atkins-scripted sequels, where Hell and its denizens are pretty much unambiguously bad – but Inferno fixates on the justness of its victims’s fates, as if drugs, adultery, body-piercing, tattoos, ice cream, prostitution, sex and neglect of elderly parents had no fun side at all.

Derricksen’s successor was Rick Bota, a former cinematographer (Tales From the Crypt, Valentine, House on Haunted Hill) who has made three entries in a row (he’s the only director credited on more than one Hellraiser).  First up was Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), shot in Canada (where supporting actors are cheap!) from a script by Carl V. Dupré (a Dimension sequel hand from The Prophecy 3: The Ascent) and Tim Day.  Following Inferno, Hellseeker – and what the hell is a Hellseeker anyway? – features a male protagonist who gradually realises he’s already damned, though it pillages further ideas from Jacob’s Ladder (not to mention Carnival of Souls, to which Jacob’s Ladder was heavily indebted) as the plot takes place in a limbo between life and death where nothing has to make sense (convenient for a thrown-together sequel rewritten at the last minute because of sudden cast availability).  Using the old pick-up-the-continuity-by-bringing-on-a-long-lost-character stratagem (cf: William Katt in House IV: The Repossession; Peter Liapis in Ghoulies IV; John Franklin in Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return), Hellseeker gives prominent billing to Ashley Laurence, last seen in video clips in Hell on Earth – though Kirsty seems to take a literal early bath, apparently drowned in a car accident from which her husband Trevor (Dean Winters) escapes.  Most of the film consists of Trev wandering through a semi-surreal version of his daily round (which involves various women throwing themselves at him), occasionally suffering torments which signal his actual fate (in the most memorable bit, he sicks up a large eel – wouldn’t Hellariser: Eelpuker have been a better title?).

Hellseeker is the one in which Pinhead, posing as an acupuncturist, finally pulls out one of his needles and shoves it through someone’s neck.  However, he also has a scene with a not-dead Kirsty towards the end that tries to get the overall story back on track but simply serves to make the former heroine seem like a nasty bitch who is willing to trade five folks’ eternal torture for her own escape.  Of course, Barker opened a boxful of worms by using the title Hellraiser (and writing a novel called The Damnation Game) but it’s still fairly depressing to see a literal, judgmental vision of Hell taking over the later sequels.  A corollary is that Bradley gets stuck with much flatter, sterner lines than Barker and Atkins wrote for Pinhead and, in his micro-appearances, seems much more like a regular franchise fiend even than in Inferno.  As it happens, Bradley got to write some of his own dialogue for Hellseeker, on the principle that he knew the character and franchise better than anyone else on the set, only for his speeches to wind up as DVD extra ‘deleted scenes’.  The actor is better served by a secondary role as a mysterious old man who might relate to the merchants, vendors and tramps seen in earlier films – or might just be there to string out Trevor’s not-very-interesting troubles – but there’s a sense that, having decided the actor and character are essential to the continuing saga (who else could you put on the DVD sleeve?) Dimension have no real idea what to do with him.

By now, Dimension had become pretty much a production line for franchise horror sequels, whether to properties they originated (The Crow, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Prophecy, Scream, Mimic, Scary Movie, Dracula 2000) or bought in (Children of the Corn, Halloween).  In 2003, Bota was sent off to Romania (where film production is cheap!) with orders to come back with two more Hellraiser films – surprisingly, both Hellraiser: Deader and Hellraiser: Hellworld are marginally better than Hellseeker, though neither wins points for originality.  Deader, originally scripted as a standalone film by Neal Marshall Stevens (Thir13en Ghosts) was rewritten by Tim Day to tie in with the franchise: a circumstance which probably helps the film feel slightly fresher yet still part of the ongoing cycle.  Those who still resent the forced relocation of the original story from London to America might get a frisson out of the opening of Deader, which finally sets a Hellraiser film in the city where the franchise was invented – though, of course, London is played by Bucharest, and the rest of the movie takes place in Romania.  Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer), a photo-journalist who specialises in low-life stories, is shown a videotape by her editor Charles Richmond (Simon Kunz, of The Bunker) which chronicles a ritual performed by Winter (Paul Rhys), head of a cult of ‘deaders’ who seems to be able to kill and then resuscitate his followers just for kicks.  Amy heads off to Romania to track down Winter, and has to get on an all-night decadent party train (run by punk-look Marc Warren, before his TV stardom and dreadful Dracula) to pick up the trail while being nagged by an apparition (Georgina Rylance, of Puritan) of the girl killed and raised by the guru.

Stevens might originally have conceived Deader as something along the lines of Videodrome or 8MM, with an obsessive, traumatised investigator drawn into a sinister sub-culture that reflects her own demons.  As it happens, this fits in fairly well with the Hellraiser worldview without repeating too much that has gone before. Wuhrer’s Amy, among the best-written and played protagonists in a series that has been stuck with some stiffs, is different enough from Detective Thorne to blur plot echoes of Inferno, and the film comes up with memorably unsettling perils for her – a passageway that narrows impossibly as Amy moves down it, an apparently fatal wound that doesn’t kill her but still leaves her bleeding and unable to reach the knife stuck into her back.  Wuhrer – a sequel fixture with credits on The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Watching You, The Prophecy: Uprising (with Rylance and Bradley and shot around the same time) and The Prophecy: Forsaken – really goes the extra mile here, not just in doing icky gore-and-nudity scenes but in giving Amy depth.  Even without the flashbacks to an abusive father, we can see in her body language (and unflattering but credible wardrobe) that the wounded woman has a contradictory need to protect herself and explore dangerous areas.  Given that so many DtDVD sequels get made in Eastern Europe, it’s no surprise that they would eventually – after peculiarities like Dracula II: Ascension, a Dracula movie made in Romania but set in New Orleans – start playing with the mix of classical and new nightmares in the post-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries.  Before Hostel made it a cliché, Deader does well by the mix of ancient evil, anything-goes post-communist crime, sickly high life (that train party is decadent enough to earn the Clive Barker Seal of Approval), bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude and sordid living conditions that is the new international image of Eastern Europe.  It’s still a thrown-together franchise obligation and lazily deploys that show-something-strange-then-take-it-back-by-writing-it-off-as-a-dream-or-a-supernatural-fugue-state convention (a permanent legacy of the Elm Street series) to string together scenes that really don’t make sense.  Also, you’ll see the various endings coming a long way away.

Hellraiser: Hellworld was shot back to back with Deader, but took a year or two to make it to the US market (and, like Bota’s other Hellraisers, still hasn’t shown up in the UK).  Carl Dupre’s script is based on a treatment called Dark Can’t Breathe by producer Joel Soisson — a franchise sequel specialist since A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge who has worked as writer, producer, editor and/or director on entries in the Maniac Cop, Mimic, Dracula 2000, Prophecy, American Yakuza, Children of the Corn, Hollow Man, Highlander and Feast series (this particular story idea could probably have fit into any of them).  Though it had the potential to be the Wes Craven’s New Nightmare of the franchise, this is the most generic Hellraiser sequel – down to the top-billing of always reliable Lance Henriksen, veteran of more series even than Soisson.  After seven films in which the Lament Configuration, the Cenobites, the chains and the rules of hell are arcane knowledge gained only by demented seekers, Hellworld is set among folks who take it all for granted.  Here, the Hellraiser mythos comes from Hellworld, a popular internet role-playing game, and the lead characters are young folks who have quit playing after the suicide of a friend who took it too seriously.  The old gang – Chelsea (Katheryn Winnick), Allison (Anna Tolputt), Derrick (Khary Payton), Mike (a young Henry Cavill) and Jake (Christopher Jacot, who looks uncannily like a young Clive Barker) – are reunited when they get tickets to a big Hellworld party at a mansion in the woods, presided over by a Host (Henriksen) who has his own reasons for wanting the kids sent to Hell.

It’s a shame this was such an add-on to the series, because with a little more thought it might have been a genuine stretch.  For the first time, a Hellraiser movie acts like a conventional slasher film – as a series of kids are lured (mostly by sexual opportunities) into situations whereby horrible things happen to them – though a late-in-the-day twist gets back to that overworked Jacob’s Ladder weird-things-happen-in-limbo field explored in the last three sequels.  The modish computer game angle, used before in Brainscan and subsequently in Stay Alive, is workable, but we see so little of the Hellworld game it’s impossible to accept as a phenomenon which displaces cultural water on the scale even of Hellraiser – and cleancut, party-hearty Romanian extras are way too tame (no tattoos, no piercings, no attitude) to be even casual Hellraiser fans.  And how could the film miss having Doug Bradley play himself making a guest appearance at the party (he seems to have done the voice-overs for the game), before being confronted Last Action Hero-style by Pinhead?  Henriksen’s always fun and the kids are decent enough – chavvy Brit Tolputt (also in The Scar Crow) is the most distinctive, so naturally she gets killed first (in an automatic torture chair that prefigures the killer gadgets in the Saw films) – but Hellworld is just what you’d expect from Part Eight of a series that’s run out of places to go.  Typical of the opportunist, thrown-together approach is that Payton was apparently cast mostly because effects man Gary J. Tunnicliffe (who has been on the series since the start) happened to have his severed head (from Dracula II: Ascension) in stock.

After that, Dimension did what they’ve done with the Halloween franchise – shut down the sequel conveyer belt to put a remake of the original in development.  Attached to direct and write are Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the French creatives of festival favourite À l’intériur (Inside).  Presumably, this will then have sequels of its own which will eventually slip from theatrical releases to direct-to-DVD (or, by then, download) efforts.  As Pope Benedict recently said, presumably not in the context of franchise sequels, ‘Hell is forever’.

 

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