A Beginner’s Guide to Hellraiser

Published: Oct 28, 2022  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

Today’s cinema is dominated by nostalgia-fueled reboots: in the light of our dystopian daily lives, even the kitchiest of films and television series from the 80s and 90s suddenly shine with the glow of a simpler, pre-social media time. Rebooting old familiar franchises from decades back scratches that itch for escapism. But when done right, a proper reboot isn’t escapist, but a worthy nod to source material that brings to it something fresh and new.

This Halloween, we’ve got a few hot takes on old classics, like Halloween Ends, the conclusion of the Michael Meyers saga, with Jamie Lee Curtis (yet again) reprising the role that broke her into show business as a leading lady. But I’m here to talk about a long overdue reboot of Hellraiser, with a gender-bent casting of Pinhead that’s making headlines.

Hellraiser is a deeply gruesome horror series from the twisted imagination of Clive Barker that started in the eighties, well before I was old enough to even consider watching it. Even once subsequent straight-to-video sequels came out in the early aughts, I still found just the image of Pinhead too terrifying to consider the bare minimum of finding out what the movie was about. (During college, the artsy social club I was in had a deeply disturbing mural of Pinhead painted on the ceiling of our basement taproom. Needless to say, I avoided looking up.)

Yet in more recent years, I’ve found myself finally exploring the horror I’d always been too scared to watch during my younger years. In some ways, that’s because what passed for gruesome in the 80’s and 90’s is tame by today’s standards—I’m still too wimpy to stomach modern gore films like Saw or Human Centipede. It’s also because franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street are such a strong part of pop culture it seemed like I ought to get in the know—especially having acted and written a few horror films myself. And lastly, as big fans of a spooky moment, my husband and I like to do a little scary movie marathon during Halloween to feel festive. So when I saw there was a new Hellraiser—with a cool lady Pinhead, no less—and discovered my husband had never watched the series either, I felt like it was a good time to edify myself on this weird corner of movie history.

Once you add the most recent Hulu reboot, there’s a whopping grand total of ELEVEN Hellraiser films—and yes, I watched all of them. Believe me: they are not all created equal. To save you the time—and sometimes pain—of doing your own due diligence, I’m going to do a quick rundown of each of these films—in order worst to best—to help you make an informed choices as to which ones are worth adding the the queue for your Halloween Hellraiser view-fest if you only have one evening to spare. 

A brief caveat: like many horror series, Hellraiser’s got its cult following. As a newbie, I’m just here to share my first-time viewing takeaways, so this “guide” is an entirely subjective, deeply under-researched personal take of my own opinions. If you’re looking for a critical analysis or deep read, seek that out on other corners of the internet—there’s plenty of folks out there with way more intense knowledge of the series than myself. 

Having starred in an ultra-low budget horror feature, I know firsthand the limits that come with straight-to-video production—and basically all Hellraiser movies except for the first few—and the last—were in this camp. So I’m basing each one as being “worth watching” on the following: 1. Is it entertaining? (Because duh, that’s the point.) 2. Does it maintain the Hellraiser mythos? (Honestly, Clive Barker built a pretty cool world, and it’s super fun watching that puzzle box morph into the same configuration in the same order every time.) 3. Is the acting any good? (Besides Doug Bradley—who is an incomparable Pinhead and can do no wrong in my book.)

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011): Skip It

Some movies are so bad they’re good. This… was just bad. According to Wikipedia, this ninth sequel was filmed over the course of two weeks for $300,000, most likely so that the Weinstein Company—ew—wouldn’t lose the rights to the IP. That shows in the quality… which is nonexistent. It feels like a group of people from acting class got together to shoot scenes for their reels, but no one had access to a good sound guy. Having been part of a 90-minute film that filmed in four days I could empathize with the cast, who did try their best, but there’s not much that could be done here. Even though it was barely longer than an hour in total run time, it felt endless. The actors gave it their all in dramatic moments, which came across as poor Nic Cage impressions. There was some kind of consistent nod to the mythology, which was… kind of nice?… but the miserable acting combined with the deeply creepy, misogynist script (plus a completely pointless and yucky incestual moment between siblings) is a big pass for me… but then again, Weinstein company. So I guess it tracks.

Hellraiser: Judgment (2018): Skip It

With more budget than its predecessor, this tenth Hellraiser is minimally better from a visual perspective, but as it was written by the same screenwriter, it has a creepy, yucky vibe to it. There’s way more gratuitous nudity than any other Hellraiser, and way more gross-out scenes in its first ten minutes—which felt more like a proof-of-concept for a new immersive haunted house than an actual movie for at least the first ten minutes. To me, Hellraiser is about torment and flaying and that kind of horror, not body fluid/digestive things, so this was a big no. (I won’t go further, it’s too gnarly.) Lacking Doug Bradley’s gravitas, the villainy of Pinhead and the Cenobite crew feels underwhelming, and the biblical undertones were tiresome. Also we already saw a detective film version of Hellraiser in 2000, which was undoubtedly superior to this. 

Hellraiser: Deader (2005) Skip it

While I did appreciate that this returned to the series origin’s of having a strong female protagonist, this was just kind of… very stupid. There’s some kind of cult of people called “deaders” who tie into the puzzle box myth, but it doesn’t really make sense. And the gritty reporter—who is introduced to us as having authored the piece “How to Be a Crackwhore”—was eyeroll inducing, with a contrived traumatic backstory. The pacing is slow and the title—Deader? Yeah, no.

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) Skip it… unless you are very bored and/or if you are obsessed with Henry Cavill.

To be clear, this movie is not good. But this eighth sequel is kind of fun just to remember how crappy the early internet was and when everyone had those indestructible Nokia cellphones. Plus, you get to see an incredibly young Henry Cavill doing what he does best: performing the role of “hot asshole” to perfection. There’s something weirdly satisfying about watching a very good actor in a very bad movie still doing a very good job performing a profoundly stupid script. However, on the whole, the film loses me with the completely bonkers plot and the female lead, who flails about in a very disappointingly impotent way.

Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996): See It—if you love Adam Scott and really bad movies.

This movie is straight cuckoo bananas. First of all, it randomly starts in space. (I’m guessing they wanted to bank off of all the Event Horizon/Stargate/Star Trek films being made around the time…?) It then jumps back in time from future space to 18th century FRANCE to show the origin of the puzzle box… and then to the present-day 90s because… sure. One of the best parts of the movie is getting to see a devilish and very young pre-Party On/Parks and Rec Adam Scott in his first movie, playing what he thought would be his breakout role—but wound up being such a bad movie, apparently even the director tried to distance himself from it. There’s a sort of modern take on original movie’s evil sexpot lead via demonic French lady Angelique (irony—noice), but it was boring to not have a non-villainous competent female counterpart, so… meh. 

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000): See it as a normal scary movie.

This movie is not bad—which is saying a lot, because it’s easy for Hellraiser films to go into camp. It’s not as entertaining as some of the hot mess sequels—see below for Hellraiser III—but actually works as a kind of normal creepy movie, where the acting is decent and the plot somehow makes some kind of sense. It doesn’t really do much in terms of lore, but it’s a good one to add to the mix if you’re doing a marathon and feel like it.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992): See it, but know it’s going to be a MESS.

Where the first two Hellraisers did some interesting worldbuilding and established Pinhead as lead Cenobite of doom, this sequel goes into full 90s off-the-rails camp territory. For whatever reason, the puzzle box is no longer the main summoning tool—instead, it centers on this pillar of death—which then eats people to resurrect Pinhead (which has never been a thing.) We did see the pillar in the first movies, but the puzzle box was really the vehicle for opening the gateway to the hell realm—or wherever the Cenobites live, so it’s weird to switch up the rules here. This movie is completely still worth seeing because, in spite of the complete campiness of it, Doug Bradley leans in HARD into delivering the most absurd copy with complete conviction, and completely owns the odd version of his character as flamboyant super villain with no apologies. Also, in true early 90s zeitgeist, there’s a Cenobite that maims people by throwing CDs at them like ninja stars. (They were probably all those free ones for installing AOL via CD-ROM—I see you, 1992!) Who doesn’t want to see that?! 

Hellraiser (1987): See It. 

Of COURSE you need to see the first one. So anything I list after this, I just also think you should see. This is the film that will give everything its context. The whole puzzle box shit, the Cenobites, and the original plot where resurrecting a dead body is possible. But as a movie, it’s a little bit of a mess, so you’ve got to be ready for that. This is some pure 1980s glory right here, and while the pacing is completely bizarre, with a lot of weird beats in the storytelling, it’s fun to watch the original story unfold and see where it all begins, and to see the rare pair of a strong female protagonist and antagonist in an 80s movie, via daughter Kirsty—who specializes in making weirded-out faces—and the evil sexpot stepmom Julia. It’s pretty worth it just to watch Julia rock her David Bowie hair, do a lot of sexual thumb-sucking, and make out with the skinless body of her lover, Frank. Yikes! 

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) See It.

This movie was legitimately enjoyable, and actually made sense as a really coherent sequel to the original films. I like to think of it as the true Hellraiser III, since it brings back the original protagonist of formerly teenaged Kirsty Cotton back in—even though she’s playing a supporting role, she’s pivotal to the plot. (Wonderfully, although this was filmed over a decade after the first two Hellraisers, Kirsty is played by the same actress, which I loved—and she’s great in the role. The years between films mellowed out her acting to a more naturalistic style—there’s less weirded-out mugging this time around—plus her hair looks great.) Interestingly, Dean Winters—aka the Allstate guy or “Mayhem”—plays the lead role of Kirsty’s crappy husband, and the movie starts with the two of them getting into a massive car accident—which feels pretty on brand. It’s kind of fun to imagine you’re watching Hellraiser: Brought To You By Allstate.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) See it.

The sequel to the original, this one irons out some of the kinks in pacing from the first, has higher production value, furthers the story, and absolutely keeps it weird. There are still some moments that lag a bit—like one scene with Uncle Frank (spoiler—he’s back!) where ostensibly nude female bodies lying on moving platforms under white sheets writhe in ecstasy/agony while sliding in and out of hidey-holes in some cavern. I kept thinking there’d be some way Kirsty was going to jump onto a platform or use it for some big plot moment, but no—we just watch the bodies appearing and disappearing for no particular reason. I guess blood does appear on them after the first shot, where the sheets were all white, but then we watch them appear and disappear again with no new developments, so that was a very odd use of film time. Regardless, I marveled for a while afterwards about how good this weird movie actually was—and it’s fun to see Kirsty get even more agency and turn into a hero. it’s definitely worth watching.

Hellraiser (2022): See it!!

This reboot has everything I liked from the originals—the interesting mythology, the compelling female protagonist, the eerie sense of inescapability—with nothing I didn’t (no weird pacing issues.) And while Doug Bradley makes every Hellraiser better with his iconic Pinhead performance, Jamie Clayton is wonderfully chilling, offering a fresh interpretation of the classic character rather than just a poor imitation—which we got from the two previous non-Doug Bradley Pinheads. And for the bros out there who complain “why’s everything gotta be recast as a chick”—director David Bruckner noted that the new casting is actually more in keeping with Clive Barker’s original vision. In his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he mentioned how, the source material for Hellraiser, Barker’s book, “The Hellbound Heart, was suggestive of a female Pinhead, and the comic books also explored the idea.” This movie does well on its own, and is a great introduction to the series, since it can stand alone in explaining all the “rules” of the lore (the puzzle box configurations and so forth.) And like the best horror films out there, it’s got an interesting, deeper moral to the story, about how we try to escape our problems, and how ultimately we need to take responsibility for our actions. So if you only have time for one, I actually am not against the choice of going with the fresh take: it’s a legitimately good scary movie.

Ultimately, there’s not a ton you can “learn” from the Hellraiser series…the majority of the films simply offer a creepy good time, something thoroughly in the adults-only Halloween mode if you’re looking for something to play in the background while carving pumpkins or watching the door for occasional trick-or-treaters. (Just make sure it’s not playing where they’ll see it—flayed skin = nightmare fuel.) And honestly: that’s enough. You only need to read the daily headlines to see we’ve got plenty of “hell on Earth” to deal with, anyway. So if you’re in the mood to escape this hell for a much sillier one, give these a watch. And just in case: if a random vagrant offers you a cool puzzle box for free—you might want to pass.

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