If you needed any more proof that the economy is well and truly fucked in this country then consider the fact that I recently bought brand new and sealed copies of Hellraiser 1,2 and 3 for £3. I’ve been mustering every ounce of my maths education: pretending the DVDs were eggs, harnessing the thoughts of a dead Greek person (probably not the best people to advise on sums TBF – what happened, Greeks?) but I still can’t get it to add up to something that might live in the same neighbourhood as ‘sense’. So while we sit back and let people with more expensive educations roll up their shirts, as if they’re going to dig up money from the ground, I’ve decided to invest my time in a Hellraiserthon.
Like my Deathwishathon – or a really inappropriate charity event – the Hellraiserthon will consist of me exploring the films in a saga, analysing their differences and wasting a few hours of my life.
Hellraiser is still a damn good film. Perhaps even a masterpiece if you’re into horror and/or bondage. It revolves around a small puzzle box called the Lament Configuration (according to Wikipedia, I don’t think it has a name in the film). This box is basically like a more evil Rubik’s Cube, but one that seems piss-easy to do. Certainly harder than the Rubik’s Magic my sister bought me for Christmas one year. And if it weren’t for the fact that fishhooks come out of the Lament Configuration and rip you to pieces, it would certainly make a more age-appropriate gift for a 10 year old.
It’s safe to say that if they did make the Lament Configuration as hard as a Rubik’s Magic we’d have a very boring film – unless the lead was a pubescent nerd. Anyway, the ‘reward’ for accomplishing the puzzle isn’t a smiling Norris Mcwhirter and a certificate, it’s the aforementioned fishhooks and a welcome to hell from a bunch of bondage clad torturers called the Cenobites. The design of the Cenobites is pretty striking, and a testament to the enduring power of practical effects. There’s the iconic Pinhead, who has pins nails in his head, a women who appears to have tried to swallow an egg-whisk, one who has chattering teeth and another who looks a bit like the drummer from ASH.
The Cenobites are essentially hell’s police, but their job appears quite easy: basically just arresting people who complete the puzzle. If a policeman’s job were to arrest people who handcuff themselves then you have some idea of the ease in which Cenobites go about their occupation. What’s more astounding is it takes four of the buggers to bring someone in. Clearly, hell, like Cash 4 Gold and Poundland, is recession proof.
What’s interesting about Hellraiser is that the Cenobites aren’t the villains in the traditional sense; they were used for the marketing and their presence is felt throughout the film but the real villain is ‘Uncle Frank’. Frank’s a bit of a wrong ‘un. With his stubble and a pirate’s earring he’s a bit like a perpetual Gap-year student, which kinds of explains why they kept him off the poster. People would probably be expecting Hangover 2 style hi-jinks in Thailand instead of a nasty kitchen sink drama about families, love, lust and gateways to hell. Anyway, Frank ends up getting his shit ruined by completing the box and then we cut to several months later when his brother shows up with his wife (a former flame of Frank’s) and daughter.
Frank’s brother is played by Andrew Robinson, who’s better known for playing the memorably bat-shit ‘Scorpio’ in Dirty Harry. It’s a neat piece of casting, because when you see Andrew Robinson as a paternal sweetheart, you know the villain must be a complete mentaloid. We don’t really get that from Frank in his human form, but it’s ably conveyed when he reappears as a skinless murderer sucking the life out of people’s necks so he can escape from hell. It’s amazing how that can transform a performance.
Hellraiser is set almost entirely within the confines of a semi in a nameless location that is either a London suburb, or a London suburb pretending to be America. It’s never quite clear. I think it’s America but then when an English person meets another English person they don’t comment on it. Probably because one person is about to bash the other over the head with a hammer before they get their skin ripped off, so a conversation about postcodes would seem a little redundant. I suppose suspension of disbelief is paramount in a film about a skinless man returning from hell while evading a bailiff dressed in bondage clothes with nails sticking out of his head.
It’s a testament to Clive Barker’s skills that despite a few student film flourishes (sequences of a not very convincing actress walking along a lonely harbour) and a strange sense of location, the film maintains a heavy atmosphere of dread. Despite being lumped in with a bunch of Garth Marenghi’s in the 80s, Barker is a genuinely original voice in horror – and Hellraiser is stronger for his unique approach. I’ve always liked horror films that are anchored in normality. And Hellraiser, with its kitchen sink style drama, is exactly that. It’s a bit like a messed up Ken Loach film in some regards.
Less strong are the rules of the box and the Cenobites. Since the Lament Configuration is apparently hundreds of years old, it makes sense that the instructions have vanished. Frank buys it from an old man in the orient at the beginning and it’s clear that it’s lacking the original packaging. Basically, it appears that by opening the box you’re inviting the Cenobites to drag you to hell, where they will spend a lifetime torturing you. This appears to the case, unless you make them a deal, which the heroine, Kirsty, does. It seems strange that, after banging on about how great it is to be tortured, they’d understand someone’s reluctance to enjoy what appears to be the best experience ever. But still, they accept Kirsty’s offer of bringing them her Uncle Frank if they let her live.
They then decide to change the rules anyway – because, they like, can. But it doesn’t matter because by that time, Kirsty has managed to change the box into a weapon that makes the Cenobites vanish – though not before they’ve had their way with Frank. Let’s fact it, he had it coming.
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2
Pinhead’s return is kind of a textbook sequel: it expands the mythology, offers a few reveals about the characters’ origins and offers a bit more gore. It’s set in the most logical location for any horror sequel: a hospital for the insane. One of the problems with horror sequels of this ilk is you’ve already seen the villains, you know the hero/heroine isn’t making it up but you still have to wait for them to convince the new characters that they’re telling the truth. Unfortunately they normally learn the hard way, and Hellraiser 2 is no exception.
The skinless returnee from hell this time is magnificently evil Clare Higgins as Julia’s Kirsty’s evil stepmother. I say she’s magnificently evil, she’s probably very nice in real life. Though she is a little overly convincing as a hell-bound harridan, so she may be a total cow. She teams up with cuntish doctor, Kenneth Cranham (again, in the film) to repeat the steps of Hellraiser one. I mean, that’s probably a good idea, right? Incorrect. It turns out that it’s actually a terrible idea. The Cenobites return once again – though, still unclear about the rules, they decide to ignore the girl who opened the box and instead let everyone come to hell to check it out.
The hell in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 looks a little bit like a Laser Quest, with lots of dark corridors and spooky sound effects. It’s here that the film falters a little bit. Clearly deciding that people won’t be scared by the same Cenobites as the first film they turn Kenneth Cranham into one. After deciding what to do to him, they decide to wrap his face in cheese-wire, have snakes come out of his hands, kit him out in the now de-rigeur bondage wear and, for extra effect, attach a giant slug to his head. To confound matters further they reveal that the Cenobites are more like hell’s Community Support officers – as they just kind of stand around, teasing Kirsty. Then they run into the Kenneth Cranham-abite and get their shits ruined.
Despite being slightly predictable – well, as predictable as anything featuring Kenneth Cranham wrapped in cheese-wire with snakes coming out of his hands can be – Hellraiser 2 is pretty good. It clearly helps to have some classically trained actors add a little bit of gravitas to proceedings and, despite some fairly ropey plotting, it’s perfectly serviceable and doesn’t ruin part one by association. It’s worth noting, however, that the ending is equally baffling but also quite cool.
Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth
Unfortunately, part three goes off the rails somewhat by catering to what someone’s perception of a horror film fan is: basically, a giant douche-hole with piercings and leather. This manifests itself on-screen through alpha-prick and owner of the world’s least appealing nightclub, J.P. Monroe. Monroe buys a giant pillar featuring Pinhead’s head because it would look mega-awesome in his club. And there’s absolutely no way this could go wrong…Unfortunately, it does go wrong and before you know it he’s sacrificing floozies to Pinhead, who’s even more unreasonable this time. I suppose unemployment will do that to you.
Hellraiser 3 is also clearly set in the US and looks a lot glossier. It also features a different protagonist: a fairly unflappable TV reporter. The other actors don’t appear to be actors at all, so shoddy are their performances. There’s a cameraman with a giant moustache and long hair who I thought may have been a famous musician using his status to secure a role – a bit like Mick Jagger in Freejack – but I think he’s just a legitimately bad actor with a big moustache and long hair. He probably also hates Sam Elliot.
Like most threequels (not sure if that’s a word) Hellraiser 3 then decides to turn everyone, including non-acting cameraman with moustache, into a Cenobite. It’s a bit like X-Men 3 where everyone is a mutant but this is only manifested through an ability to jump really high, it basically reduces the potency of the Cenobites and makes things a bit daft. It’s a testament to the first film that despite the unlikely chain of events, you don’t dwell on the fact that it’s a bit silly. Also, Hellraiser 3 features a heavy rock crossover with Motorhead and several other hard rockers providing aural accompaniment, which is never good for a horror film’s credibility. This is often known as ‘Dokken’s Axiom’.
I didn’t manage to secure the others but was a little surprised to see the adventures of Pinhead continued across another six installments. I seem to recall part four took place in space and can only assume the others involved a trip to college and/or a stag do in Vegas.
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