Back in Austin, my favorite place that didn’t involve drinking or food was I Luv Video. It was a place I could literally spend hours lost inside of, a massive, two-story building stacked floor to ceiling with tapes and DVDs, and not just the run-of-the-mill, eighteen-copies-of-grownups Blockbuster shit, but things you had never heard of, even things you may have never wanted to see. Sometimes—scratch that, most of the time—I would just show up at the place with nothing in mind but a vague idea of preferred genre, and walk out with one, two, or even three flicks. During one such visit, I was with talented musician and barbecue enthusiast Ben Seligson, and we happened upon a copy of Clive Barker’s 1987 classic, Hellraiser.
Like a lot of folks, we were somewhat familiar with the premise (and more familiar with the punctured face of the franchise, Pinhead): a globetrotting libertine happens across a puzzle box that unleashes a band of sadistic interdimensional beings—aka, the Cenobites—who tear him apart and trap him inside the box. Later, his brother and sister-in-law move in to the house where his blood was first spilled, and lots of classy late 80s Vaseline-lens sex happens, followed by lots of late 80s latex gore. Needless to say, we were hooked (har har har), and when we rent to return the disc, decided to rent Hellraiser II. And then…well…things got kind of out of control.
As of this writing, Ben and I have seen all but the most recent iteration of the Hellraiser franchise (which we consider non-canonical, as it features someone other than series regular Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead). For those of you keeping count at home, that’s eight movies, only three of which were ever released theatrically. Like an interaction with those angels of pain, the cenobites, the Hellraiser series starts weird, and then gets a little weirder—and harder to sit through—as time goes on.
What follows is a retrospective of all eight canonical Hellraiser films. I’ll be working mostly from memory with occasional references to Wikipedia. Happy Halloween lovelies, and let’s get ready to bleed.
1. Hellraiser (1987)
I already gave the gist of the plot above, but the original Hellraiser is more of a slow burn than a lot of people realize. It’s mostly atmospherics, with some awesome big hair and shoulder pad dresses thrown in for good measure. Oh, and there’s also a ton of shots of Frank without skin bleeding all over the place, and I think he tries to rape a teenager at one point. Looking back, it’s kind of crazy what you could get away with in 1987. Pinhead and the Cenobites (if this isn’t a metal band already it should be) don’t show up until around the halfway mark, which would become a calling card of the series, even though its marketed exclusively using their image. A typical Hellraiser film works out like this: some idiot does a bunch of dumb shit, vaguely connected to the lament configuration, and then the Cenobites show up in the last half hour of the movie and slaughter everybody. Take notes, kids.
2. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
This is my personal favorite of the series. It’s paced a lot more like a traditional horror film than the first one, and also features mad cenobite action, as well as some awesome Pinhead one-liners (“It is not the hands that call us…but DESIRE.”), and a computer-generated hellscape that spills into a mental hospital, which, it turns out, looks a lot like really bad deviantArt MC Escher ripoff work. It also features a mad scientist turning into king Cenobite and destroys Pinhead and his cronies (we also figure out that Pinhead used to be a real person, and see some Cenobite origin stories for the first time). They definitely had a lot more money to make this one, and it shows, in the best/worst/best again of ways.
3. Hellraiser: Hell on Earth (1992)
This flick marks the point at which the Hellraiser series descended into full blown batshit territory. It’s the definition of a bloated, aging, early 90s horror franchise, complete with completely unnecessary attempts to be hip and modern. The plot involves an asshole club owner who purchases a giant rotating pillar that somehow has the Cenobites trapped inside, and he (of course) accidentally releases them. Since it’s a third sequel, the producers decided bigger was better, and the Cenobites end up converting a huge swath of New York (trivia buffs: a lot of it was actually filmed in North Carolina) into a Cenobite army, which leads a series highlight, Cenobite who kills people by launching CDs out of his body. BONUS: Motherfucking MOTORHEAD recorded a version of “Hellraiser” for the soundtrack, and the video featured Lemmy playing cards with Pinhead.
4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
You can kind of delineate the different Hellraiser periods like geological layers. This marks the period that the series moved to direct-to-video release and got markedly crappier. It may have coincided with Bob and Harvey Weinstein realizing they had to churn out a new flick every few years to hold onto the rights to the franchise, but it’s uncertain (read: I’m too lazy to research it) when exactly that began. This is probably the most boring of all the Hellraisers. It’s bad, but doesn’t really have any noteworthy insanity to make sitting through the 1.5 hours of shit worth anything. It does win “WTF” meta-points for having scenes set both in a space station and 18th century France, and this also supposedly shows the origins of the Lament Configuration, but like most of the series, it makes next to no sense.
5. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Why they didn’t go with the obvious Hellraiser 2000 title and make it about Pinhead and the Cenobites laying waste to an America crippled by Y2K is beyond me. I remember next to nothing about this movie, except that it involved a detective investigating a murder, and that there seemed to be a lot of Memento rip-off artistry happening. I think he realizes that he is the killer and in hell, living out the mystery of discovering it again and again for eternity. I want to say that the producers were sly enough to try and wink as they said “Hell is watching our movie forever”, but I don’t want to give them too much credit.
6. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
Wait, maybe this is the one with all the Memento ripoff time fractures. That would make more sense, seeing as Memento came out in 2000, and even on the tight Hellraiser production schedules, ripping off a movie that came out the same year seems hard to do. All I know is one of them involves Pinhead coming in as a dues ex machina at the end, and revealing the mysteries of the plot. And this happens while it’s snowing. Inside. I should mention that by this point, the Cenobites were really only tangentially related to the series, at best (but yes, they still put Pinhead on the cover of every box), and would show up in the last 5 minutes, and in some cases NOT EVEN KILL PEOPLE. What bullshit.
7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Continuing the long and arduous road through the “boring Hellraiser” period, Deader is about a suicide cult led by the descendent of the guy who created the Lament Configuration (he’s a central character in Bloodline) and who somehow has this plan to take control of the Cenobites by tricking a bunch of cultists into killing themselves? It’s weird, but Pinhead and his goons show up and murder everybody at the end, which can be counted as a return to form for the series. Side note: there’s a joke about a sequel to Dracula: Dead and Loving It in here somewhere.
8. Hellraiser: Hellword (2005)
Two Hellraisers in one year! This flick marks a return to form to old-school batshit crazy levels of Hellraiser. Yet another example of old and creaky producers trying to prove how hip they are, Hellworld set the series’ mythos against the backdrop of online gaming and LAN parties. In the world of this movie, all the cool kids are obsessed with this new computer game (…) even though some people who play it mysteriously wind up dead. Lance Henrisken hosts the namesake “Hellworld” party at his giant gothic mansion, and then a bunch of teenagers are systematically killed by him and Pinhead. Great times had by all, and an awesome MST3K worthy “WTF” ending for the whole family!
There you have it folks. A look back on that franchise so many of us love to reference even though we’ve seen none of the movies! This year was not the year I finally got off my ass and made my Pinhead costume, but one day, one day I will reign supreme as the master of the flesh. Remember when you go out and hit the streets tonight, looking for delights of the tongue: “I…AM…PAIN.”