When Hellraiser came out in 1987, it drove a white hot nail through the head of the horror genre, pushing against the prevailing winds of the slashers and producing something far classier, imaginative, and mortifying. The Freddys and Jasons of the world were about to descend into self-parody if they hadn’t already. Yet here was an American-produced, British-made film which combined gothic romance, Cronenbergian body horror, Harryhausen stop-motion, and basic slasher principles into one unholy soup of nightmare fuel filled with creatures that felt like de Sade had come back to life, attended an all-night rave and dreamt up something especially nasty.
Well, it’s not quite that simple. The sequel, Hellbound, wasn’t exactly a yawnfest nor a universally rejected entry in the franchise. In fact, some even prefer Hellbound to Hellraiser, to which I say you shut your no good pirate hooker mouth. Then I calm down and realize how rude (and very Anchorman-y) that is and resolve to be better.
Cue the transitional quote: “A lot of hard-core fans of the first movie weren’t too happy but I’ve met as many people at conventions, festivals and signings who prefer the second picture as I’ve met who dislike it. The critics, too, were split in their opinions…But the real voters are the paying customers, and Hellbound did as well financially as the first movie.”
That’s Peter Atkins, the screenwriter of Hellbound as well as Hellraiser III and Hellraiser: Bloodline, talking to Monstroid magazine in 1993. Clive Barker wrote and directed the first film, adapted from his own novella, but feared becoming typecast as a filmmaker. So, he opted for an Executive Producer credit on the sequel even though he helped Atkins come up with the story. Hellraiser producer and editor Tony Randel took over as director, and Barker has generally praised their work on Hellbound over the years.
Hold on. If the sequel’s good enough for Clive Barker, what gives? What’s the problem? They’re both worthy entries in the franchise, far better than the direct-to-video sequels. Let’s move on …
No! Have you met the internet or fandom before? Debates like this one are just what we do. So, let’s have at it:
While marketed by the film’s American backers as a showcase for the unforgettable Pinhead, Hellraiser is really a story of doomed lovers wreaking havoc and only occasionally running afoul of curiously attired enforcers from hell. Hellbound is the inevitable plunge into the mythos, sending the characters to hell and providing explanations and backstories. Hellraiser is essentially a simple there’s-something-in-the-attic story with a vampire-influenced, S&M twist whereas Hellbound mixes hospital horror with an MC Escher-version of the underworld. The beauty of the former is its surprise and simplicity and the appeal of the ladder its explanation and expansiveness.
In Hellraiser, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), squatting his mother’s abandoned home, opens a box – technically called the Lament configuration – he really shouldn’t have and is torn to pieces by alternate dimension creatures. Years later, his brother Larry moves into the house with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), hoping a relocation from Brooklyn to Britain will save the marriage. Oh, poor, sweet, simple, naive Larry. He has no idea Julia had been engaged in a series of Earth-shattering sexual trysts with Frank. Simply remembering it gives her a mad case of the vapors, only to then be interrupted by Larry showing her a cut on his hand like a small child seeking a mother’s protection.
Not a good start to the movie, Larry. Spoiler: This story does not end well for him.
Frank soon returns from the dead as a skinless husk who needs to feed on other people’s blood to regain his form. Luckily, Julia is willing to lure men to the home to feed them to Frank. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) knows Julia’s just no good and never will be. Soon enough, she has proof when she walks in on her stepmom and oddly skinless uncle doing God knows what to some poor stranger. But when Kirsty accidentally opens the same box Frank did at the start of the story she’s forced to make a deal with Pinhead and the rest.
Hellbound picks up almost immediately after Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank, Julia and the Cenobites. She’s been admitted to a mental hospital, and wouldn’t you know it the guy in charge, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), just happens to be an occultist with several Lament configurations in his collection. Kirsty’s story might sound like a bunch of nonsense to the cops or to Dr. Channard’s young protege Kyle (William Hope), but to the good, demented doctor it all sounds like a recipe for fun.
With the help of a newly returned Julia, who seduces him much as Frank had once seduced her, Dr. Channard sets about finding out what exactly really is on the other side.
Meanwhile, Kirsty enlists the help of a well-meaning doctor named Kyle and a seemingly mute girl named Tiffany to enter hell and free her father.
The sequel is not as burdened with exposition and set-up, but it does so at the expense of a sense of surprise and sort of loses the plot with Kirsty as it goes along. She could have been killed halfway through and replaced by Tiffany and the film wouldn’t have changed much (she’s certainly knocked unconscious and forgotten one too many times). The original Hellraiser, however, feels more perfectly constructed in its focus on the most messed up happy family this side of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Julia’s turn as the Queen of Hell in Hellbound is campy fun, but it’s not as rooted in humanity as her arc in the first film, not that she even has an arc in Hellbound. And Dr. Channard is a poor substitute for Frank and Pinhead.
Hellraiser’s the enemy of my enemy is my friend turn, with Kirsty partnering with the Cenobites, leads to Frank’s brutal comeuppance, which is amazing. However, after that the real final battle with the Cenobites is really mostly them walking very slowly at Kirsty through the house before they either disappear back into the box or are trapped under rubble. Then she battles an unfortunate prop monster the production didn’t quite have the money to do justice. Still, the Monkey’s Paw-esque conclusion, where the box is returned to its demonic owner who peddles it to gullible tourists at a bazaar, is a perfectly fitting end, suggesting the story will now begin anew with another set of players.
Before we get to any of that, though, Kirsty’s dawning realization that Frank has murdered her father and taken his skin is..well, that’s just messed up, in the best horror movie way possible.
Hellbound ups the scale considerably, including a final battle that begins on Earth and ends in hell. Dr. Channard and his tentacle/knife arms at least pose a more immediate and visible threat, and his punishment of his patients on Earth and near-immediate ascension to hell’s proudest at least gives it all a real “holy shit!” aspect. But his eventual destruction by “Oh, crap, my knives got stuck in the ground” and Kirsty’s last-second save of Tiffany by way “Look how quickly I put on Julia’s skin” don’t totally connect for me. They’re somewhat impressive setpieces, sure, but nowhere near as motivated by character and emotion as the first film’s, “Hold on, are you wearing my dad’s skin?”
BEST DEATH SCENES
Hellraiser gives us scenes of individuals being torn apart by the cenobites and one-on-one encounters between Frank and Julia’s seduced fools; Hellbound has an entire hospital ring opening boxes at the same time and an attic full of the corpses left behind by Julia, all hanging as if on meathooks. But that’s what sequels do. It’s kind of the whole mandate – go bigger and better. Agreed on the bigger, not so much on the better. In those instances where Hellbound tries to one-up Hellraiser, I side with the original recipe, not the knock-off.
For me, the real showcase death in Hellbound is Julia rising from the mattress and crawling in the blood after the poor mental patient who kept cutting himself. Not only does the scene go on longer than expected, thus raising the tension, it also contains a sneakily brilliant sadistic touch whereby we’re actually rooting for the poor victim to not reach the curtain where we know Kyle is hiding. If he does, they both die; if he doesn’t, Kyle makes it out of there to help Kirsty.
That’s still not enough to win me over to Hellbound’s side, though.
BEST LINES aka MOST QUOTABLE
- “We have such sights to show you!” – Pinhead
- “Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!” – Pinhead’s economical response to Kirsty’s crying.
- “We’ll tear your soul apart!” – What happens when you doublecross Pinhead.
- “Jesus wept” – Frank, in Larry’s skin right before being pulled apart by the Cenobites again
- “Come to daddy” – Frank to Kirsty
- “I’ve seen worse.” – Julia, who has personally murdered men and watched Frank absorb their blood, now watching a boxing match with Larry after he observes, “I thought things like this made you sick.”
- “Your suffering will be legendary, even in hell!” – And we know Pinhead’s not one to exaggerate.
- “No more deals child, it is your flesh we want to experience, not your skill at bargaining.” – Pinhead has had it up to here with everyone’s bargaining.
- “The doctor is in.” – Dr. Channard’s entrance line as a Cenobite
- “Holy shit!” – Tiffany’s first line in the entire film, after seeing Channard’s new form
- I’ll get your clothes. I can do that. I’m a doctor.” – Kyle struggling to keep his shit together after witnessing the unthinkable.
- “They’ve changed the rules of the fairy tale. I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother. Now I’m the evil queen. So come on!” – Julia owns all.
- “Nothing personal, babe!” – Julia’s executing her revenge on Frank by tearing out his heart and giving him the same kissoff line he fed her in the first film.
Actually, I’m going to surprise myself and side with Hellbound here. I do so get a kick out of campy Julia and Pinhead’s exasperated “What is it now, Kirsty?” musings. Seriously, dude just wants to get his torture on.
Barker originally wanted an electronic band to perform the music for the first film, but he was convinced by Roger Corman’s company to go with composer Christopher Young, who’d done Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and provided Hellraiser with a lush orchestral score. As is the case with many productions, the music ultimately makes the movie. Without Young’s work or with a lesser piece of music in its place, Hellraiser simply wouldn’t be the same nor feel as grandiose. There’s a deadly elegance to the music which instantly announces over the opening credits, “This is not going to be like those other horror movies,” and the accentuates crucial moments, like Frank’s resurrection.
Barker knew just how good he had it with that music, later admitting on the Laserdisc commentary, “In a sense [Young] made a larger mark on the movie than practically anyone else associated with it, because his score elevates the picture with its scale, majesty, complexity and emotional richness.”
Young returned for the sequel, not content to merely replicate his original work but also expand on it, introducing several entirely new compositions. It’s the choral arrangement he added to the main theme which wins me over. It plays as if it’s some lost Danny Elfman-Tim Burton composition not enough people know about.
Verdict: Hellbound, but, really, both soundtracks completely kill.
BEST USE OF PINHEAD
And here we have it. The real deciding point.
There is perhaps no stranger member of the fraternity of slasher movie icons than Doug Bradley’s Pinhead. He’s not actually the villain in his first two movies, more like a middle-management enforcer obligated to honor his side of a contract which stipulates that anyone who opens a rather particular puzzle box must be quickly swallowed into hell and punished. He’s not even named onscreen until the third film, by which point he had briefly morphed into a somewhat tragic figure, a glorified prisoner turned into a prison guard and stripped of his memories. He’s verbal – unlike Jason, Michael, and Leatherface – but his speech is slow, measured and almost Shakespearean – unlike Freddy’s grim jokester vibe. He similarly punishes the sexually promiscuous, but he does so in an equally kinky way that would cause even Jason to blush, not that we could ever tell under his mask.
But Pinhead is barely in the first film. The Cenobites occupy all of 7 minutes. The increased screen time in the sequel and expansion of backstory, at least on Pinhead’s should theoretically give the sequel the edge. However, to know the monster is to empathize with and not fear the monster, at least not as much as you used to I believe it was Aristotle who said…
Blah, blah, blah.
Truthfully, this is simple: Hellbound killed Pinhead like a punk. Granted, it’s because they lost a good chunk of their budget right before filming and had to cut a planned fight sequence, but Channard flicks Pinhead and the Cenobites away like they were mere flies.
Nope. Nuh-uh. I’ll take 7 minutes of intrigue and mystery over that weak sauce.
In the end, there are several individual elements of Hellbound I appreciate or like more, but the original Hellraiser tells a better story and makes better use of its villains. Hellbound is to be celebrated for not simply doing more of the same, but Hellraiser has this:
Overall Verdict: Hellraiser
What about you? Where do you stand on the Hellraiser vs. Hellbound debate? Or do you dislike both of them? Pinhead’s unique version of acupuncture and PVC-style are certainly not for everyone. Let me know in the comments.
Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II are both currently available to stream on Netflix and Shudder. Doug Bradley and the rest of the Cenobites will be appearing early next month at Texas Frightmare in Dallas. I’ll be there.