Before he was interviewing movie stars or producing podcasts, horror fandom stalwart Tom Elliot was sharing his thoughts on the genre with the GeekPlanetOnline community. From grim 1970s slashers to modern CGI murder, if you need the opinion of a gorehound then Tom is your man...
This week's column was originally going to be a look at sequels, intending to lead into a regular feature within That Horror Thing where I look at some of the more under the radar horror franchises. Well, something happened since… something big. Doug Bradley, the actor who portrayed Pinhead in eight Hellraiser films agreed to appear at the GeekPlanetOnline Halloween event. Am I excited? You have no idea.
To celebrate this, I’m going to explore the Hellraiser franchise; a series that I never intended to cover. Perhaps it’s not entirely inappropriate though; half of the Hellraiser films were direct to DVD after all. It’s easy to forget how big the franchise was in the beginning, the first four films were big events for the horror community, and still retained the crossover appeal to keep them in the mainstream too (anyone remember Pinhead at the MTV awards?). Unfortunately though, it didn’t last.
The Clive Barker written and directed Hellraiser unknowingly gave England its biggest horror icon since Christopher Lee took on the role of Dracula. The actor who portrayed him, Doug Bradley will tell you, “he doesn’t have a name, and if you called him Pinhead he’d ignore you”. But for the sake of this column, we’ll stick with Pinhead, instead of “lead Cenobite” as he was originally billed.
The beautiful thing about the first Hellraiser movie is the multi layered plot that only gets more fascinating when each layer is added. The story of Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his adulterous wife Julia (Claire Higgins), whose past affair with Larry’s Brother Frank has left their relationship empty is an interesting story in its own right. Add in Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence) from a previous relationship and her tempestuous relationship with Julia, and the plot thickens. Then there’s Frank. The opening sequence of why a man gets torn to pieces by chains becomes clear when we discover that a few drops of blood in the attic resurrect the skinless Frank so he can seduce Julia into killing for him to restore his body. And then finally, there are the Cenobites. The majestic travellers from another realm are described as Angels to some, Demons to others. They hardly feature at all, but when they do, they leave such an impression that later; people often believe they were in the whole film.
The second film in the series Hellraiser II: Hellbound, despite not retaining Clive Barker as either director or screenwriter, seamlessly continues the story from the first instalment, and also retains the tone. Thanks in no small part to Clive Barker’s lifelong friend Peter Atkins taking over screenwriting duties based on ideas developed with Barker. Following on immediately from the second film, Kirsty is taken to an asylum where she’s put under the care of Doctor Chanard, who has a secret fascination with the lament configuration and the Cenobites. He uses the opportunity to his advantage he takes the mattress Kirsty’s step mother Julia died on in the first film and resurrects her. With Julia’s guidance Chanard uses an inmate from the asylum, a young girl with a penchant for puzzles to open the puzzle box and once again bring forth the Cenobites.
Hellbound is a favourite with fans, who sometimes even place it over the first film. It’s notable for its atypical villain Doctor Chanard. Far from a moustache twirling stereotype, Chanard is constantly out of his depth in the film. He manipulates the arrival of Kirsty to his advantage, seeing the chance to get what he’s been seeking for years, but when he gets it, it’s too much for him. Also, like the first film, Pinhead and the Cenobites are notable by their absence. Again, the story is good enough in its own right that when they do arrive, they’re adding to an already good film, rather than a film relying on their presence.
Hellraiser 1 & 2 form a satisfying whole, and are probably the only two essential films in the series. There is some enjoyment to be had yet, but unfortunately, Hellraiser never continued its strong beginning.
The Gradual Decline
It would be four years until another Hellraiser film was released. Hell on Earth marked a big shift in tone for Hellraiser, and is often criticised for being the film that tried to adopt the more mainstream feel of the other horror films of the time. It’s not an entirely unfair criticism. The glossy visuals are a far cry from the grainy look of the first two, and Pinhead’s screen time is greatly increased. It was actually Clive Barker’s intention that Claire Higgins’ character of Julia return as the villain of the piece, it was her who was intended to be the main villain of the series not Pinhead, Higgins however had no desire to become “the female Freddy Krueger”.
If you can look past the unfortunate “TV movie” look of the film though, at its core it’s a good continuation from the second film. Still written by Peter Atkins based on ideas by Clive Barker, the film shifts away from Kirsty Cotton’s story, instead relocating to LA, where the Pillar of Souls that Pinhead was imprisoned in at the end of Hellbound is bought by nightclub owner JP Monroe. In the classic Hellraiser tradition, Monroe is a man driven by lust and pleasure, regularly bedding women he picks up in his nightclub only to ditch them afterwards. When the pillar of souls is put in his apartment, the remains of Pinhead, imprisoned in the pillar begin to seduce Monroe into providing the blood he needs to be free. Pinhead however, isn’t quite the Cenobite we know from the previous films. Separated from the human side that balanced the Cenobite side, this Pinhead is pure Cenobite, which accounts for his increased bloodlust and disregard for order. Meanwhile, the human side of Pinhead, Elliot Spencer enlists the help of reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell), to help him reunite with the Cenobite, in order to restore Pinhead to his previous form.
As I said previously, the visual look of the film is unfortunate, as are some of the wooden (and in the case of JP Monroe annoying) performances. But at its core, I stand by the story that the film tells. It’s a pleasure seeing Doug Bradley giving a great performance as Pinhead’s human alter ego Elliot Spencer, and the less restrained Pinhead’s murderous rampage is enjoyable, though thankfully it’s the only time in the series we see it. Hell on Earth is Doug Bradley’s favourite Hellraiser sequel.
Hellraiser’s final cinematic outing Hellraiser: Bloodline, is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the creator of the puzzle box (or Lament Configuration) Philip LeMarchand, and how his bloodline is inextricably linked to the puzzle box and the Cenobites. At this point Clive Barker was still involved in the series, helping supply concepts for Peter Atkins to turn into screenplays. The film takes on an anthology type format, and the first story begins in 1800’s when LeMarchand creates the first puzzle box for a wealthy aristocrat, who uses it, and his knowledge of black magic to summon a demon named Angelique and have her inhabit the skin of a woman. LeMarchand is killed by Angelique, but his bloodline continues to be linked to the Cenobites.
In the present day, a discarded puzzle box from the end of Hell on Earth once again allows Pinhead access to our realm. While here, he attempts to use another LeMarchand created device, the Elysium Configuration, to permanently open the gates to Hell allowing him dominion over the world. The plot fails, but in the year 2127, the last descendent of the Lemarchand bloodline plans to use the Elysium configuration to finally destroy the Cenobites.
Bloodline is unfortunately the film that killed Hellraiser’s cinematic run, and was the last to feature any involvement by Clive Barker and Peter Atkins. Its production is famously troubled and forced edits and reshoots meant the released film is a disjointed affair that bears little resemblance to the original script. Original director Kevin Yagher left the production before it was completed, and the fact that the film was released with Alan Smithee credited as director speaks volumes. The moderations to the film severely misunderstand Pinhead’s role in the scheme of the Hellraiser universe. His goal has never been world domination, only to perform his duties as a soldier of Hell; collecting those souls who bring it upon themselves to be collected.
An unfinished original cut of the film surfaced recently, and can be found by those who know how to find things. It’s rough, and difficult to watch in its unfinished state, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the film restored to how it should have been, but it’s probably the thing that Hellraiser fans desire most.
The four straight to DVD entries into the Hellraiser series are perhaps best left to series apologists who are happy for anything Hellraiser rather than nothing at all, but I admit taking pleasure in some small moments. Dimension Films total disregard for the potential in the series means that instead of developing new stories, some of the films are actually pre existing scripts with the Hellraiser mythology added in later.
Hellraiser: Inferno (Doug Bradley’s least favourite instalment) and Hellraiser: Hellseeker are two mildly diverting, but ultimately dull entries. Both using a similar set up in which the main character wanders through illusions of reality created by their encounter with the puzzle box. Hellseeker wastes the opportunity of having original actress Ashley Lawrence retuning to the role of Kirsty, by relegating her to what is little more than an extended cameo. Some small scenes that tie the movie more securely into the first films were cut in attempt to make the film more accessible to casual viewers, but at this stage you really have to wonder why, as it was probably only the faithful who were left watching.
Hellraiser: Deader and Hellraiser: Hellworld were filmed back to back in Eastern Europe, a further cost cutting exercise for the criminally under budgeted series. Deader has some potential, focusing on a group called The Deaders and their charismatic leader Winter. The Deaders seem to be able to resurrect themselves at will, and a video tape leaked to the press of one such resurrection puts reporter Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) on their trail. The setup is sound, but a lack of exposition as to who the Deaders are and what they want, plus some more of the dream sequences that hampered the previous two movies mean that Deader is another missed opportunity.
Hellworld is Hellraiser doing a “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” ten years too late. Set in a world where the characters are aware of the Hellraiser film series, it’s unclear as to where it actually sits in terms of continuity. Another frustrating “it was all a dream” ending annoys, but the playful tone and increase in splatter means it’s not entirely un-watchable, just not very satisfying for those hoping for anything furthering the Hellraiser mythology.
With the straight to DVD films, gone is the poetical dialogue, gone is Christopher Young’s beautiful and iconic score, and gone are the majestic entrances that Pinhead once enjoyed. Doug Bradley bravely kept the faith, as the only constant since the originals, but even he admits, when he got the offers to appear in these films, he got the feeling that nobody would have really cared if he’d have said no. For completists and apologists only.
The Expanded Universe and The Future
The Hellraiser comics are a must for anyone disappointed by the misuse of the Hellraiser mythology in the films. The comics understand that Pinhead isn’t the focus of the Hellraiser universe, and that by summoning the Cenobites, you’re not necessarily going to be granted an audience with him; there is any number who might come to claim you. This allows the writers and artists the freedom to be far more creative with the mythology. There are three volumes of reprints called Hellraiser: The Collected Best that I highly recommend.
An attempt following the success of Freddy Vs Jason to combine the Halloween and Hellraiser franchises was vetoed by fans in an online vote. What they weren’t told beforehand, was that Clive Barker had agreed to write it, and John Carpenter to direct. I imagine the vote may have turned out quite differently had fans known.
When Clive Barker was approached to write the Hellraiser remake recently, rather than beginning from scratch, he proposed to “re-present” the series. He planned to keep Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead, but instead of masking his age, acknowledging it, and making Pinhead an older evil. Unfortunately Dimension studios vetoed the idea, and the film has been permanently stuck in development Hell ever since. An interesting short film by Gary J Tunnicliffe (the effects artist on the later Hellraiser films) called No More Souls, was released as an easter egg on the Hellraiser: Deader DVD, and is also available on youtube. Tunicliffe plays an older Pinhead in a post apocalyptic world with no more souls to collect, and while not officially the fate of Pinhead, is an interesting curiosity.
Perhaps fittingly Hellraiser has returned to its literary roots to regroup, for the moment at least. The anthology Hellbound Hearts was released recently, and continues the tradition of the comics with its imaginative use of the mythology. Clive Barker too plans to return to the Hellraiser universe and write his own final Hellraiser story, telling the final fate of Pinhead in the book The Scarlet Gospels.
While the film series rests, ready to be reborn, there is still new material to enjoy and new material to look forward to. When the film series is reborn can anyone give Pinhead the majestic but restrained presence that Doug Bradley did? Could you imagine any actor of his calibre taking on the role and sticking to it for all these years because they’re fiercely proud of it, and he knows that’s what the fans want to see? Unlikely. We can only hope that when it does happen, that whoever takes on the mantle, acknowledges the debt they owe to Doug Bradley in creating the role. I don’t envy them, they’ve got some big shoes to fill.