Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box, another sumptuous collection of films from Arrow Video, charts a unique trajectory for a horror franchise, from nihilistic horror, to deadheaded fantasy, to semi-decent, big-scale fluff.
The first, perhaps best, of the series is 1987’s Hellraiser. It’s directed with a sharp eye for detail, an over-eager love of sleaze, bone-deep affection for nerdy background bits, and a nice lack of nonsense. It’s also one hell of a mess—the work of a man obsessed with detail, little interest in coherence, and a love of moments of startling violence and queasiness that supersedes a weak, servile narrative impulse. The story—and the director’s well laid out themes—is never really able to take hold of our attention before shifting into a new mode and genre. However, it’s also one hell of a thing to watch; Barker, a newcomer to directing but already an established novelist by the time Hellraiser emerged, plays each individual scene at its highest, most hysterical pitch—a glass-eyed, demonic hobo chewing on a fistful of crickets in a pet-shop; the nightmarish birth of an emaciated monster out of a throbbing placenta suspended in cobwebs under the floorboards of an old attic, his dripping, gaunt, spinal frame arched, limbs askew, as he connects his backbone and cortex with a shove; a collection of Gothic, leather-clad “Cenobites,” S&M terrors from another dimension, who desire to make “pleasure and pain indistinguishable” for the unwitting mortals they decorticate and disembowel (“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”).
Barker really wants to make Hellraiser the story of self-destructive love—as the crew are quick to explain in the (very long) documentary Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (2015), a supplement in the set no doubt of great interest to those curious about the movies’ production history and the mysterious aura of their creator (he’s the only person who doesn’t appear in it)—though his sensibility is too across-the-map and jumpy for him ever to bring it into fruition. Still, it’s interesting that the Wicked Stepmother figure in this haunted house horror is more dimensional than we’re first lead to believe; it’s ultimately her sexuality that Barker (at least at first) seems interested in exploring, before other things attract his attention. With action mostly confined to a grotty suburban home, he’s got a gift for putting over the feeling of nihilism felt and projected by his pugnacious characters, building their vileness into an atmosphere of genuine unpleasantness to match the web of spectacular gruesome effects.
Where the first film was a moody, often incoherent piece of grimness with a sometimes touching affinity for unconventional sexual feeling, the second film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), is without any real grasp of tone or mood, no deeper interest in buried affinities. It’s just incoherent and grim (and grimy). The movie starts up where the first finished, diving straight in after a laborious summative montage of the best bits of the first film (one of two in Hellbound alone): having passed out after escaping their imploding demon-filled family home, Ashley Laurence’s witless Kirsty, the young girl whose hapless father (the great Andrew Robinson) was skinned and sent to hell at the behest of her stepmother (Claire Higgins, good in a difficult role) and Mephistophelian uncle (Sean Chapman, best when he’s playing the skinless ghoul) in Hellraiser, wakes up in a mental institution, cut off and surrounded by clichés of mentally sick patients (“107 years and the doctor still doesn’t know my name!”), weird, uncharismatic young doctors, a chip-on-his-shoulder inspector asking her all sorts of questions. Her anonymous boyfriend is nowhere to be seen, ostensibly having disappeared in the interim.
From there, she gets embroiled in the Faustian exploits of an evil psychiatrist who collects, somewhat coincidentally, the same paraphernalia that led to Kirsty’s trinket-obsessed, scumbag uncle being sent to hell in the first movie. The doctor also tortures and abuses his patients, ultimately doing so to intentionally conjure the beings from the other realm. From there, Hellbound follows the characters as they explore the Escherian netherworld that was only suggested in the first film. At the time of the second film’s release, the first had become, as Chicago critic Dave Kehr noted in a contemporary review, “a cult item on the college circuit, probably because it provides a test of manhood (and digestive tract control) comparable to swallowing goldfish.” But where Hellbound could have been a light, playful expansion of the first film—having fun with some of Barker’s serious-minded cheese, showing some invention in adapting it for a bigger frame—it was instead directed with no flair and a terminal lack of imagination, though the nauseous gore remains. The work of a hack executive for the company that produced the first movie, its few virtues can be likely credited to the cabal of art and production designers and talented technicians who worked first on Hellraiser and continue to put in the hours here. (My favourite flourish is the wrinkled, fat penis-worm-creature whose dripping tip gloms onto the mad doctor’s head and plops him wherever he’s needed to conduct some evil, wizardly business.)
So, after the failed deviation of Hellbound, one might assume that Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992) would return to the roots of the franchise; to a relatively low-budget sleazefest. Instead, the production shifts to the States, the scope expands, and its horror film tropes are transposed to a generic action-thriller mould (trading out the generic moulds of the first two). The first film produced by the Weinsteins’ Dimension Films, it’s a shockingly decent piece of work, at least for the first half, after which it becomes a weird, uninteresting affair depicting a city-siege perpetrated by the lead Cenobite from the first two movies, Pinhead (Doug Stanley). The opening scenes, especially in contrast to Hellbound, whose director seemed to be blissfully unaware of any of the possibilities of an expressive camera, are full of gusto: dynamic dolly-and-tilt movements as characters walk down long, red-hued corridors and through seedy clubs filled with bustling dancers; split-diopter effects used bluntly but beautifully (in a sex scene you see the guy’s face rocking to and fro the camera in the foreground and a possessed sculpture coming to life in the background); some interesting suggestions of off-screen violence (a first for the series). Concerning the relationship of a tough-willed female TV news reporter (“I’m here for tight stories not tight skirts”) and the young, impressionable sometimes-girlfriend of a sleazeball nightclub owner, himself a reworking of the first film’s tiresome, macho, virile Uncle figure, it’s an entertaining slice of cheese, well-produced and smooth, with a duo of punchy performances from the female leads. (They try to solve the mystery of a brutal death at her boyfriend’s nightclub, giving the film a slight building suspense, while he’s convinced of hell’s glory by Pinhead, at that point trapped in the statue, face protruding just enough to yell at passers-by.) That the movie devolves into stupidity is a shame, but it’s to Arrow Video’s credit that they included this unfairly maligned semi-good entry in the Hellraiser franchise in this plush set, perhaps giving it another shot among fans.
Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box is out on Blu-Ray from October 26.