The Hellraiser series has a history that is unlike most long running horror franchises. Originally released in the late 1980s, when the slasher genre reigned supreme and audiences had been fed a steady diet of movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween, Hellraiser came along and did something completely different.
A work of a darkly sexual nature, inspired by the queer subculture of the era, and the BDSM and kink community, it was its overt and challenging sexual overtones that would end up enthralling and frightening the more vanilla members of the audience, as much as its blood and gore. Arrow Video are now offering up the chance to view the first four films in the series in improved 4K Ultra HD quality, in a set packed with extras, and they have such sights to show you.
For a series that would spark almost a dozen sequels, comic series, and a plethora of merchandise that is as popular today as it was when it was first released almost forty years ago (perhaps even more so than when it first hit screens), it’s shocking to think that the original film was a directorial debut from writer Clive Barker. Barker, who wrote the short story The Hellbound Heart upon which the film was based, had never directed a feature film before, but thanks to disliking previous adaptations of his work, chose to take the reigns himself this time. And some of that does perhaps come through in a film that is wonderfully made, yet contains some flaws.
The human cast of the movie are at times a little arch, especially villain Julia (Clare Higgins), who plays the part with such venom and barely contained viciousness that you have to ask why her husband Larry (Andrew Robinson) never once feels suspicious of her. Frank (Sean Chapman) is another villain that feels so overdone that he makes Julia feel normal, and the re-dubbing of his voice with another actor’s that never quite feels like it matches only adds to the odd feel of him on the screen. Other choices such as the film never quite knowing if it’s set within the UK or the US feel odd, and the inclusion of a bug-eating homeless man who transforms into a demon at the end is something that feels like it would probably be better off on the cutting-room floor. The fact that it’s not explained or addressed in subsequent movies only adds to this feeling.
Despite this, the first film has a huge amount of charm and effectiveness, mainly dude to the Cenobites. The leather-bound bondage demons, angels to some, demons to others, are the real stars of the movie, despite hardly being in it. The original plan for the series was to have Julia go on to be the main villain, becoming the queen of hell in the second film, but the reaction to Doug Bradley as the Hellpriest/Pinhead would cause a change of direction that ultimately helped the franchise. Bradly has a presence to him that you don’t find in most horror villains, and his regal quality, his willingness to make deals, and the cold cruelty he displays sets him apart from his contemporaries.
You can tell that the reaction to him helped to shape the second film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which went into pre-production before the first film was even released. Also written by Barker, with Peter Atkins hopping on to help with the screenplay, and directed by Tony Randel, it feels very different to the first film, yet is the sequel that’s the most alike. The story continues on from the end of the first film, where Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) now finds herself in a mental facility run by the mysterious Doctor Channard (Kenneth Graham) following the events of the first movie. Whilst the shift to a mental health facility does have shades of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, its focus on the background of the Cenobites and their world keeps it feeling unique.
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The film delves into hell, taking the audience and characters there, and shows us that the Cenobites were once humans themselves; a fact that would play heavily into subsequent movies. The inclusion of the Escher inspired hell-world, the unknowable god Leviathan, and the further machinations of Julia, expand the story and setting in ways that most horror sequels simply didn’t do. But it’s by no means perfect, and the over-designed nature of the Channard Cenobite and the destruction he wreaks feels like a foreshadowing of the third movie, and leads the final act of the film to be the weakest part of the movie.
Whilst the first film kept its setting unknowable, and the second mixed together the US and UK even more, the third film takes a strong stance on setting, and moves things to New York, where we meet young reporter Joanne ‘Joey’ Summerskill (Terry Farrell), who is haunted by dreams of her father dying in Vietnam. Whilst out on a story she stumbles across a mysterious death that leads her to a nightclub where the owner has a strange, column-like statue that contains the spirit of Pinhead following his apparent destruction in the second film. Unbound to the puzzle-box, and with his human spirit now separated from him, Pinhead seems to play by new rules, and will wreak death and destruction on anyone he can unless he can be returned to his former self.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is the first major stumbling block for the franchise. Despite having done its own thing for two movies, and made a decent reputation for itself, this movie seems to want to be the slasher type film that Barker was avoiding. With Barker having no involvement on the film, director Anthony Hickox takes it in a very different direction. The subtlety of the series is gone, the sexual nature is cast aside other than sex seemingly awakening Pinhead for the first time, and the calm nature of Pinhead has vanished. There was always a sense that he was a villain that would only do what was needed, who played by certain rules, but here he’s a killing machine, with one scene having so much slaughter in it if you Google how many kills are in this film it comes back at over 300. It’s excessive, and very much not Hellraiser.
The new Cenobites created for the film also reflect that. Previous ones were, like Pinhead, people who had gone through a strange torture, their bodies augmented and enhanced in simple, but disturbing ways. This film has a guy with a camera in his head, another that shoots CDs out of his body, and one that carries a cocktail shaker and spits fire. They feel like the kind of Cenobites that someone who missed the point of them would create, and even Pinhead calls them shit by saying they’re pale reflections of the real ones. That all being said, there are a few good moments in the film, such as the scene of Pinhead in a church, and several of the shots of him towards the end of the film are perhaps some of the best the series has had up to this point. But this isn’t enough to save the film from being a rather large disappointment.
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The failures of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth are often seen as the beginning of the end for the series, the start of a downward spiral that would produce terrible movies. However, Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, the fourth film, actually ends up being much better than its predecessor. This is perhaps due to the involvement of Barker, who returned to help produce the film. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline delves into the history of the series, providing an origin for the Lament Configuration (first named in this film), as well as continuing the story from the end scene from the previous movie, and acting as a final conclusion to the entire series. It does this by telling a story across three separate times in perhaps the boldest move in the series yet.
The film begins in the future, in space, where a scientist named Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsey) has taken control of a space station, and is summoning the Cenobites. However, before he’s able to finish his experiment, the station is stormed by soldiers and he’s taken prisoner. When asked what he’s doing, he begins a tale that takes us back to the 1700s France, where his ancestor, the toy maker Philippe Lemarchand (also Ramsey) is commissioned to create a special puzzle-box. Lemarchand learns that the puzzle-box has been used in a dark ritual, and has helped to create a gateway to hell, in which the demon Angelique (Valentia Vargas) is summoned to Earth. Lemarchand begins to design a box that will seal the gateway and send the demons back, but is killed before completing it.
From here we skip forward to the 1990s, where we meet another ancestor who is carrying on that work, and is responsible for the Lament Configuration inspired building from the end of the third film. It’s in this time period that Angelique is freed from her servitude, and using the puzzle-box from film three, is able to summon Pinhead to assist her. Whilst they’re able to kill the Merchant in this time period, they’re both banished back to hell for a brief time. In the distant future, Paul Merchant has finished the work the toy-maker started, revealing that the station they’re on is a giant puzzle-box that has been created to destroy the Cenobites forever.
It’s a well known joke that once the franchise goes into space it’s all over (despite Jason X being amazing), but this film seems to buck that trend somewhat. The split narrative across different time periods is an interesting idea, and a confirmed origin of the Lament Configuration is interesting to see. The film also featured a return to the Pinhead we know after the third outing, with his character being much better here. Cenobite designs that fit into the original films feel are also a huge improvement. Whilst the film isn’t perfect, mainly due to around 30 minutes of movie having been cut by the studio, that resulted in director Kevin Yagher walking away from the project, it still manages to be incredibly intriguing and engaging. Whilst it might get tarred with the same brush as the third film, Hellraiser IV: Bloodlines feels like an improvement over that film in every way, and offers one of the surprisingly better stories in the series.
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Each of the four movies in the set have been restored from the original film negatives, and the films look great. Having already owned a copy of the first film on Blu-ray the difference here is quite noticeable, with a sharpness and crisp quality that wasn’t present before. And this is done across all four of the movies, with this set being the best versions of all of them that I’ve seen. Whilst the improvement in quality of the films is a decent draw for this set, it’s the extras that are really worth the price of admission, as each disc is packed to the brim. Each of the movies comes with audio commentaries, with previously released commentaries for the first three movies also being included (two for each), along with brand new commentaries for each film, giving viewers ten in total. There are also brand new video essays, discussions, and documentaries for each film, along with archival material, that offers hours of extra features that go in depth into each of the films, as well as the franchise in broader terms.
Hellraiser is a series that took risks when it first came out, that challenged the sensibilities of the time, and was something of a subversion of the horror genre that people were used to. It ushered in a new kind of horror, and created an icon of the genre that has become instantly recognisable. Whilst the subsequent films in the series vary greatly in quality, with some decent psychological horrors to be found in the later movies alongside some absolute trash, the first four movies are a pretty good representation of the franchise as a whole, and show off some of the different directions it would take. This new set might be pricy, but it offers up some great movies, and if you love going behind the scenes and learning more the extra features are a goldmine.
Hellraiser: Quartet of Torment is out now on Limited Edition Blu-ray and Limited Edition 4K UHD from Arrow Video.