Whenever any halfway decent sequel comes out, critics bust out the boilerplate and claim that it’s better than the original. Yet if you wait a year, talk to actual fans, the number of films where this is actually true drops off sharply. Only a few have held onto the title, movies from franchises with names like Godfather, Terminator, and Star Wars. I would add the second Hellraiser film to that list, with the caveat that it’s not as good as the ones above. Or maybe I just want to use Hellraiser and Godfather in the same sentence.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II is better than the first Hellraiser movie. Depending on your opinion of that first one, I could merely be damning with faint praise. But the Hellraiser franchise, despite only two good entries (and six nigh-unwatchable ones), have a hallowed place amongst horror fans. Part of this is that they’re the creation of legendary horror author Clive Barker, and the first attempt to bring his rather uncomfortable highly-sexual aesthetic to movie theaters. The other is that Pinhead (known as Priest in the original script, or simply “Lead Cenobite” before the fan-nickname took hold) is a great character. Instantly iconic, along with his other three Cenobites, he manages to be both an incredible design while saying some of the coolest shit it is possible for a bad guy to say. How do you not love a villain who tells someone their “suffering will be legendary, even in hell”?
I saw the original Hellraiser when I was too young. Then again, I’m not sure there is an appropriate age for a film so steeped in an extreme interpretation of S&M. I have to chalk this one to the ‘80s being a vastly different time. I did see the movie early enough that I hadn’t even heard the name “Pinhead,” though (and if fact assumed those were nails in his face). I only had the vaguest idea of what was really going on, though the dark brilliance of it all was captivating. There was no one else out there doing what Barker was doing: harnessing the over-the-top sexuality of movies like The Hunger and Cat People, then marrying them with the fashions of Road Warrior and the gore of a slasher picture.
The sequel was just as much of a revelation. The modern blockbuster-driven studio system has done everything it can to remove the quirky corners of movie universes. Every question needs an answer, every line has to have a point. Yet one of the things I love about the time before was the way the movies always seemed to much bigger than they actually were. By leaving these unanswered questions, they created soil rich enough to be strip mined in this modern age. The only reason Terminator as a franchise can spawn five movies and a good TV show from a single low-budget horror movie is that there were evocative speeches and great throwaway lines.
Barker excels at this kind of storytelling. The man cannot write a simple horror short without hinting at some vast mythology just out of reach of the pages. His novella — and yes, all nine (and counting) Hellraiser movies are based on a single novella — creates this idea of angels of sensation, humans who found pleasure and pain so extreme they have been hopelessly mutilated into supernatural beings. These creatures, the Cenobites, can contacted through the use of a puzzle box (known as a Lament Configuration because Barker is the best at naming things). The first movie, written and directed by Barker, is the story of a man who found the Cenobites and now wants to escape with the help of his brother’s wife, with whom he has been having an affair. Kirsty, his niece, is the film’s Final Girl, managing to return her murderous uncle to the clutches of the Cenobites before banishing everyone before she becomes a guest star of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Saw.
The sequel finds her confined to a mental institution. Unfortunately for Kirsty, the institute is under the control of Dr. Channard, a brain surgeon who is absolutely obsessed with the Cenobites.
Using the mattress where Julia, Kirsty’s adulterous stepmother was killed, and a crazy person who wants nothing more than to cut the phantom maggots off his body with a straight razor, Channard summons Julia back out of hell in one of the most over-the-top gore scenes in movie history. It seems like a redux of the first, with Julia standing in for Frank, but Julia has motives of her own that are not apparent until much later, creating a far more layered villain. The gore effects here are a triumph, with the most striking scene of a skinless Julia standing in a bloodstained white suit in the middle of Channard’s antiseptic house.
Channard’s other tool is the catatonic Tiffany, a girl who compulsively works puzzles while remaining lost inside her trauma. When he hands her one of the three Lament Configurations he owns(!), she quickly solves it and opens a portal. The Cenobites emerge, ready to carve her into something more disturbing when Pinhead stops them. “It is not hands that summon us. It is desire,” he says, continuing his trend of saying awesome things. He leaves the door open, and soon Kirsty and Tiffany, Channard and Julia, are exploring Hell. It’s about as pleasant as it sounds.
This created a huge springboard for subsequent stories. While the movies that followed this one were increasingly silly — and Hell on Earth is already plenty stupid — the comic series was excellent. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, comics were often the best place to follow a beloved property as it expanded its world. The Aliens comics are vastly superior to Alien 3 and Resurrection and the anthology Hellraiser book isn’t even the same species as the later films. It is the lesson of Hellbound that the comics follow, exploring the idea of the hierarchy that’s already emerging in Hell. At the top, there is Leviathan, a rotating shard that spews blackness and dissonant chords. Why would the lord of a dimension of flesh be a nearly featureless polygon? Why do some of the devotees become Cenobites while others are confined to torment like Frank? The comics spent a lot of ink and nightmares answering some of these questions, and in the process created more Cenobites to add to the menagerie.
None of that would have been possible without Hellraiser II, the last of the good Hellraiser movies. It’s a sprawling story, featuring two worthy heroines going up against the kinds of villains who would make Batman shit his tights. It drops so many hints, asks so many questions, that even my mind, too young to have seen it, was already feverishly filling in the blanks. Much like the Alien series, Hellraiser will always be two movies and then the comics for me. This film blazed the trail, and though it is an oddity, I remain a devoted fan.
I initially thought this was far too popular a movie to be included in Now Fear This. It seems as though the later installments have done what not even Dr. Channard could: it blunted Pinhead’s effectiveness as a horror icon. Now, the first two movies, and especially the superior second, stand as gems waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of horror fans.