Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the world woke up with a brand-new direct-to-video Hellraiser film in it, Hellraiser: Judgment, a labor of love from long-time Hellraiser makeup FX guru Gary J. Tunnicliffe. Despite audacious new ideas in an early Clive Barker vein and truly inspirational attempts to exceed the sum of its low-budget parts, Judgment continues the tradition of all direct-to-video Hellraisers being objectively, well, pretty bad. It is a tradition now that stretches back nearly twenty years, but its roots go back to the very beginning – not to speak ill of Hellraiser, but there’s a fissure in the foundations of the house at 55 Ludovico Street, and through that crack, amid Clive Barker’s tale of blighted passion and Grand Guignol designs, slips the unlikeliest thing of all: ordinariness.
Barker’s harrowing original Hellraiser (1987) chronicled the devolution of Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) from a loveless adulterer into a multiple murderess as she feeds lonely men to her skinless lover to quite literally put meat back on his bones. Those responsible for lover Frank’s sorry state, the pierced, deformed, and leatherclad Cenobites, acted not as actual demons, but more evangelists of fleshly mutilation from beyond the grave. This is important, because much of the implicit horror in Hellraiser and its 1988 sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, plays on the idea that falling into the clutches of the Cenobites might not be the worst thing. The worst thing might be that you’ll like it. The Hell Priest, Pinhead,* (Doug Bradley) makes no mention of a literal hell in his first appearances, describing his cohort to heroine Kirsty Cotton as “explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.” Even when Kirsty ends up meeting him again in a sort of literal hell in Hellbound, the Cenobites are still entirely unconcerned with sins, punishment, or other conventionally demony things. As far as they’re concerned, the grey matte background paintings of hell’s labyrinth is just a big undead key party, and Kirsty’s gotten herself invited again, the teasing little minx. As a resurrected Julia recruits a sinister psychiatrist for Cenobitification, she’s also less concerned with his sins – which are, to be fair, manifold – and more with his desire to cross boundaries into the unknown. With its Leviathan at the center of the labyrinth nothing more than a rotating obelisk, closer to an early Windows screensaver than Satan, the entire ethos of Hellbound is an amoral Cronenbergian rumination on human flesh, inhuman flesh, and transcended flesh, with only a single scene – where Frank reaps some sexy Tantalus treatment — modeling punishment of the wicked.
Barker would have kept the series focused on Julia Cotton, but Clare Higgins declined to take up the role a third time. So, Anthony Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) saw the Cenobites first take center stage as the Hell Priest was liberated of his human soul and unleashed a bloodbath through downtown Greensboro, NC, I mean New York. Contradiction of contradictions: putting the spotlight on the most fantastic aspect of Barker’s story ushered in ordinariness as the Cenobites’ repulsive glamour, in Barker’s memorable phrase, became conventional, sadistic evil. Now, the Hell Priest simply wants to butcher the world, a purpose both more ambitious and yet less grand than bending Kirsty Cotton’s screams into sighs. This uncomplicated bloodlust came explicitly into the service of a recognizably Christian hell in Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), which followed the, ahem, bloodline of the creator of the Cenobite-summoning Lament Configuration puzzle box (Bruce Ramsay), from 18th century France all the way to an ultimate confrontation with the Hell Priest on a space station. Director Kevin Yagher and the studio clashed to the extent Yagher left, forcing an uncredited Joe Chappelle to finish the film, although the underwhelming end result truly is an Alan Smithee joint. Check it out for a wild Adam Scott sighting. This would be the last theater-release Hellraiser to date, but for all its developmental issues and cool unused ideas, the worst part of its legacy was its success in confirming the Cenobites as no longer angels to some, but demons to all. Talk about a Fall.
From Bloodline on, despite periodic buzz of reboots and remakes, even some involving Clive Barker, Dimension Films let the franchise lie fallow, spitting out rushed sequels at intervals just to secure the rights, normally by taking an unrelated horror script they already owned and bedazzling a little Cenobite action onto it. They don’t know what to do with Hellraiser, but they’ll be damned if anybody else can have it. With so little care or promotion of these ashcan films, most people probably would be surprised by just how many sequels the Hellraiser franchise stacked up this way. Judgment makes 10 Hellraisers. Ten. Not that many horror franchises last into double digits, but Hellraiser’s many entries isn’t indicative of success; it’s a brand of failure.
The direct-to-video era began with Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), starring Craig Sheffer as a corrupt cop tracking a deadly serial killer in what Comics Editor Carol calls “Hellraiser noir.” I don’t hate this movie, particularly Sheffer’s performance as Joseph Thorne, a bad cop with a conflicted heart whose badness makes him a pretty successful homicide detective. I appreciate the new Cenobite designs, which are a big improvement on silly additions in Hell on Earth and Bloodline — looking at you, guy with CDs rammed in his face and Chattererpup. But the good parts of Inferno aren’t natively Hellraiser. Thorne’s quest for a serial killer called the Engineer – a name excised from Hellraiser lore with no connective tissue – becomes a big surreal metaphor for the way Thorne is killing his own soul, and at the end of the trail, the Hell Priest and friends promise him a world of richly-earned torments for his sins. Despite sexy Cenobite dream sequences, interstitial Lament Configuration pawing, and the chains and oratory we expect from the Hell Priest, the Cenobites here have been demoted, neither “explorers” nor evil, world-conquering demons, but something infinitely more mundane. Worse, their presence degrades the film underneath, keeping it from attaining its own Jacob’s Ladder reveal by leashing it to an alien franchise with barbed hooks and thick chains.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), the first of three wildly dissimilar Hellraisers helmed by Rick Bota, saw the return of Kirsty Cotton, but most of the film follows her gross philandering husband who plots to murder Kirsty by making her reopen the Lament Configuration. It’s not the most amazing of plans, and it doesn’t go well for him, as Kirsty has a gift for entrapping bad dudes with Cenobites. Clive Barker actually had some input on this sequel, uncredited input though, and I suspect he simply didn’t want to let Kirsty to come to a badly-written end if he could help it. In the end, the film follows the lead of Inferno, with Kirsty’s horrible husband arriving at a similar realization as Thorne at the end of similar chains. In the second Bota pic, Hellraiser: Deader (2003), Kari Wuhrer stars as risk-taking reporter Amy Klein on the trail of a cult of “Deaders” that promise life after death and have the snuff films to prove it. The cult is headed up by a descendant of Phillip LeMarchand who figures it’s his right to rule the Cenobites, and that is, in fact, as stupid as it sounds. The Cenobites’ involvement here is even more decorative than the previous two films, and their inclusion forces a silly motive on the film’s Big Bad for no reason except to make it Hellraisery. But wait, the Cenobites get even shorter shrift in Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005), which decides to get all meta with a group of teens obsessed with a video game based on the Hellraiser franchise. In this film, Lance Henriksen is the Big Bad, and the Cenobites merely blunt weapons to perish the teens like common Jason Vorheeses. This is probably the most watchable of the Bota films, with its glossy Scream aesthetic and Lance having some degree of fun, but the degradation of the Cenobites into simple butchers hurts me. It’s like watching a brilliant immunologist wait tables because her research funding was eliminated. You deserve better than this, Hell Priest. We all do.
The most recent two films, both written by Gary J. Tunnicliffe, honestly meant to be Hellraiser movies from the start, but they took very different approaches. Revelations was a reboot of sorts, executed in a hurry with a shoestring budget, probably with a big clock counting down the time Dimension had left before the rights expired on set. Spurred by budget necessities, Revelations unwittingly returned grandeur and ambiguity to the Cenobites by making the focus again an intimate story of murders, betrayal, and skin-swapping. If only the recast Pinhead hadn’t sucked.** But for all its flaws – poor acting, a cheapness of production that all the jerky cam in the world couldn’t hide, and a baby-faced Hell Priest – the movie at least knew what it wanted to be and it was that thing, dammit. A very first draft version of that thing, but points for trying and also for deference and reference to the original.
So, too, Judgment, where Tunnicliffe turns auteur, not only serving as writer-director, but also starring as a new character who provides a counterpoint and, in some respects, a replacement for the Hell Priest: the Auditor of the Stygian Inquisition. And he isn’t at all bad. In fact, taken in isolation, most of the elements of Judgment aren’t at all bad. Pinhead is again recast (Paul T. Taylor), but this time, the actor works well, echoing the best parts of Doug Bradley’s iconic performance while being even more physically imposing. Judgment also boasts a legitimately good lead performance from Damon Carney as tormented detective Sean Carter, and I particularly like the companionable humor of Tunnicliffe’s Auditor, which is a nice departure from the slightly bored majesty of the Hell Priest. His steampunk aesthetic of goggles, scars, typewriter, Für Elise, and German accent is fun.
Where Judgment fails has a lot to do with the script, which is an uneven and illogical mishmash of hell and heaven’s jurisdictional disputes better belonging in a mid-season Supernatural episode and a gritty serial killer drama that seems to borrow from Inferno: tormented cop tracking a serial killer, unwittingly drawn to the Cenobites, and there’s a twist, but kind of an easy twist. Where Revelations pared down Hellraiser to its essentials, Judgment doubles-down on locating the Cenobites in hell’s bustling bureaucracy. This major addition to Hellraiser lore in the form of the Stygian Inquisition basically works as a series of disturbing and/or cool images, which also, in all honesty, has traditionally been the limit of the Cenobites’ effectiveness in the majority of the films I’ve just described. It’s obvious Tunnicliffe wanted to evoke the repulsive glamour of not only Barker’s work – although maybe not specifically Hellraiser — but Brueghel and Bosch in the imaginative repugnance of the Inquisition, and I actually think it might have worked on a less penurious scale. I wouldn’t call it either scary or good, but Judgment is the most interesting film successor to Hellraiser in…well, possibly ever. Which is what we call damning with faint praise. It’s weird, since this is probably the first honest attempt at a Hellraiser sequel in a long, long time, but like the non-Hellraiser Hellraisers before it, I think its ideas would flourish better without the Cenobites.***
You know, I don’t have the energy to be angry about continuity for its own sake anymore. I used to be that kind of fan, a long time ago when I could be threatened by the idea of something I loved changing. That me wouldn’t have accepted a Hell Priest other than Doug Bradley. But I’ve seen too many once-exciting series collapse under their own weight, too many promising stories choked by audience expectation and overpromising creative folks, and frankly, too many successes that a younger, furiously-certain me never would have given a chance. I’ve written about that before, and I think about it in relationship to Hellraiser here, not so much in that my heart is open for a new, different Hellraiser, though it is, but more that I’m not blinding myself to the strengths and weaknesses of the beloved original. There was no mythology underpinning Clive Barker’s tale of a wronged woman doing very wrong things for the wrong man. Julia was always the real villain, and the Cenobites were a cool-looking manifestation of the most unwholesome appetites. That was their strength. They were as uninterested in guilt or innocence as the blade of a headsman’s axe. They just wanted to play. And you had to ask to play by opening the box, which wasn’t meant to be an easy feat. “It is not hands that summon us. It is desire,” the Hell Priest says when a young girl ignorantly solves the Lament Configuration in Hellbound. But that was the weakness, too, or if not a weakness, at least an element of the Cenobites that didn’t lend itself to a conventional horror franchise. Conventional horror needs innocents in harm’s way, and to be caught in the Cenobites’ orbit, your innocence is the first thing you shed. And so, the explorers became something more ordinary: hell’s creatures, blurring the chillingly alien amorality of a godless universe with these things in it in the first film into the simple sadism and masochism of literal demons. Like adding Laurie Strode being Michael Myers’ sister in Halloween II, it was a development that made sequels easier to rationalize, but arguably less frightening, and now there have been so many sequels with the Hell Priest as a servant of hell, who could venture he’s anything else? Even Clive Barker’s 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels explicitly dealt with the Hell Priest attempting to overthrow Lucifer, and the comics, also with Barker’s involvement, have likewise kept the Cenobites pinned in hell’s hierarchy. But all of this is imaginary baggage. The best idea wins, and so far, the Hellraiser series has only really had one or two good ones. I don’t like Judgment, but I like its audacity, and I think this series needs more of it if it’s ever going to get out of development hell.
*I don’t mean to be pretentious about this, but Clive Barker hates the name “Pinhead” and calls this character the Hell Priest, so I try to honor that. But, you know, it’s Pinhead.
** The drama behind the Tunnicliffe Hellraisers and the recast Hell Priest(s) is some serious gossipy stuff, and I would fain say who says what is more true, but it seems to me that there are genuine hurt feelings on both sides, and that might make a good movie one day. I should also mention that my husband’s childhood friend, who I’ve never met, is friends with Paul T. Taylor, who I’ve never met. Dude did a good job.
*** Tunnicliffe had such a difficult time selling the idea of Judgment to Dimension that he removed the Hellraiser elements and briefly undertook making that version with a Kickstarter campaign.
Angela’s least favorite Cenobite is the cameraman one from Hell on Earth because, come on, man, you’re not even having fun. That’s Cenobite rule number one.