Of all the iconic horror movie franchises birthed within that “boom” period between 1973 and 1988, Hellraiser is probably the most interesting to me. Not the overall best; until those stupid prequels came along, I’d have handily picked Alien as pound-for-pound the most artistically accomplished horror franchise overall. Not the one with the highest highs; the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first Halloween, the first Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead II, Predator, Jaws, Alien, and Aliens mop the floor with even the best of the Hellraiser films.
But Clive Barker’s flagship series, to me, plays with the most boundary-pushing ideas and unconventionally shocking imagery of any long-running horror movie series from that critical window of time for the genre. Or at least… it should have. See, along with being the most interesting horror movie franchise of the era, it’s also possibly the most frustrating. Because seemingly no one in charge of these movies after 1988 understood what made them so special.
The Cenobites aren’t psycho killers. They aren’t driven by revenge or some drab teleological motivation. They’re these otherworldly, amoral (not immoral, amoral), masochistic hedonists from another plane of existence. Their interpretations of pleasure and pain are so extreme and far removed from our senses that the two cease to have any meaningful distinction to us mere mortals. “Demons to some, angels to others,” Doug Bradley snarls at us through his distinctive baritone voice. There was a chilling detachment to their expressions and their strict adherence to an incomprehensible belief system that stood out from the expressly menacing bloodthirstiness of Freddy Kreuger or Jason Voorhees at the time they first hit the screens.
That’s interesting, right? Horror on a more abstract, experiential level. The first two films truly committed to that vision. Hellraiser, helmed by Barker himself in his directorial debut and adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart, definitely gives off “first-time filmmaker” vibes. Not just because of some clunky shots, muddled storytelling, and inconsistent acting, but more importantly, because of the unmistakable zeal and enthusiasm that you see from a novice director worried this would be their only opportunity to make a movie. Hellraiser, for all its flaws, was a badly-needed shot in the arm for a genre that was reaching self-parody in the late 80’s (the “funny” installments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th franchises were released the year prior to Hellraiser’s release, while the “funny” A Nightmare on Elm Street and the first Child’s Play came out a year later). And then, only fourteen months later, Hellbound: Hellraiser II was released in theaters, and instead of being the kind of cheap cash-in you’d expect with such a short production turnover, ended up being possibly one of the most peculiar horror sequels ever made, launching into a disorienting roller coaster through logically impossible labyrinthine architecture and incoherent hallucinatory imagery operating on borderline cartoon logic as soon as Tiffany solves the puzzle box and enters the Cenobite dimension with Kirsty at the start of the second half. Gun to my head, I could not recount to you what, exactly, happens after that point, only that watching it is a weird, perplexing, and stomach-churning experience perfectly in keeping with the “vibe” of Barker’s tale… if not really the sense of it.
The first and second films presented a more outré breed of the classic haunted house tale; the only genuine attempt made by anyone not named “David Cronenberg” in English-language cinema during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to really dig in on sexualized body horror. They still hold up pretty well even today, especially the practical effects.
But then, as it goes for nearly all of these horror franchises, the 90’s happened. The Cenobites were not spared from the wrath of that decade, and Pinhead was no longer a proponent of a deeply disturbing hypersensualist philosophy. In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, he’s just… a Bad Guy™. He laughs maniacally, kills indiscriminately, and wants to take over the world because reasons. Which was just such a boring direction to take this series.
On the bright side, we did later find out about this funny moment:
Then we got Hellraiser: Bloodline in 1996, directed by “Alan Smithee,” which used to be a pseudonym that directors could request in place of their real names to distance themselves as far as possible from the final product. In “Alan Smithee’s” defense, the movie isn’t half-bad when it’s set in 18th-century France. Horror franchises should go back into the distant past more often!
And that was the last time the Cenobites ever saw the inside of a movie theater again. Believe it or not, the series’ mythology improved a little from Hell on Earth and Bloodline when it transitioned to direct-to-video. Still not good; all of them were ashcan movies (that is, films made quickly and cheaply by a studio and then dumped quietly onto market solely to prevent their I.P. rights from lapsing). But still… a modest improvement. Scott Derrickson, of all people, was brought onboard to co-write and direct Inferno and reworked the mythology into a new status quo that has endured through every subsequent installment: Pinhead as an explicitly Judeo-Christian Judge of the Wicked. I guess you could do worse for Hellraiser movies than remold them into grim religious morality plays. Indeed, it has been done worse.
But… aren’t there already more than enough horror movies with that ecumenical angle? Turning Pinhead into a denizen of the Literal Biblical Hell robs him of his distinctiveness among horror icons, and it’s frustrating how every filmmaker since Inferno seemed determined to jam that pin-shaped peg into a crucifix-shaped hole over the last quarter-century.
David Bruckner, fresh off his deservingly well-received horror outing The Night House, has teamed up with the now 69 year-old Barker (having regained the rights to his work after a protracted legal battle) to do a proper treatment of the material for the first time in over thirty years. Not an ashcan movie. Not an “ironic” self-parody. But a semi-reboot that promises a return to the visceral body horror and transgressive sexual undertones of The Hellbound Heart.
The most intriguing bit of pre-production news, inarguably, was the announcement that the “Hell Priest” (Barker actually hates the nickname “Pinhead,” by the way) will be played by Sense8’s Jamie Clayton, which, as I mentioned earlier this month, spurred on the predictable “Waaaah Hellraiser has gone woke!” bellyaching from the usual sad dorks on the internet. But it mostly prompted curiosity from fans of the series. “What is her take on this character going to be?”
Last Tuesday, we got an answer:
And sure, marketing can be deceptive. Maybe it’ll drop the ball as the last eight entries have. But doesn’t this seem like a damned promising reflection of Barker’s original vision? Doesn’t Clayton’s demeanor feel “right” for a dark, otherworldly leader of an inter-dimensional sadomasochism cult? Clive Barker’s horror is so memorably terrifying because of how they plunge you into twisted worlds and unnerving forces that aren’t just unknown, but unknowable. For the first time since the premiere of The Simpsons, we are facing the very real likelihood of seeing a movie that actually understands this, and leans into it. And for the first time ever, we may possibly, finally, get a cinematic adaptation of his twisted vision that will stand on its own and succeed in all the fundamentals as a movie.
What true horror fan wouldn’t be psyched for that?