Consider the history and current state of the Hellraiser franchise. The franchise began life as a short story by prolific horror novelist turned Hollywood film director Clive Barker, who turned his own story into a feature length movie in the mid ’80s during the teen slasher horror boom. At that time, Hellraiser was something of an anomaly, as it went for gruesome gore and intense creepiness that made your skin crawl, something that ’80s American “horror” didn’t do. Barker didn’t come back for a sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser, a movie that continued where the original left off. And then a second sequel came 4 years later, followed by a third sequel (again, 4 years later). What did all 3 sequels have in common besides the appearance of Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites? They were all released in theaters.
Then 2000 brought us Hellraiser: Inferno, the first Hellraiser movie to be released directly to video. I know what you’re thinking: “Uh oh, someone’s in trouble.” And you’d be right. The Hellraiser franchise, it seems, has run its course, unlike fellow franchises Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and countless others. Do you see the irony? Hellraiser began life as something new, something unique, and has become something tiresome, so much so that it doesn’t even garner the respect of a theatrical release anymore.
Which brings us to 2000’s Hellraiser: Inferno, starring Craig Sheffer (“The Ritual”) as Joseph Thorne, a Denver City police Detective. Thorne is a brilliant cop but he’s also addicted to drugs, prostitutes, and neglecting his wife and child. When Thorne and his partner Tony (“NYPD Blue” alum Nicholas Turturro) are given a tough case involving the bloody mutilation and murder of an ex-High School classmate of Thorne’s, a strange, ancient-looking box is discovered at the crime scene. After a night of debauchery with a hooker, Thorne opens the box and things start to get weird. He begins seeing men without faces everywhere and Cenobite demons begin appearing to him in visions. What’s worst, Thorne feels like he’s losing his mind, and as the bodycount starts to rise, all evidence start pointing at him.
For its first hour, Hellraiser: Inferno is a hell of a good movie. The film is centered on Thorne, who gives a (dare I say it?) brilliant performance as the laconic cop with a sharp mind but destructive personality. As if to underscore just how odd of a human being Thorne is, while talking to the precinct psychiatrist Thorne performs a sleight-of-hand magic trick, to which the psychiatrist remarks that his kid must love it when he does that. Thorne stares blankly back at the psychiatrist and states, matter-of-factly, that he doesn’t think he’s ever performed the magic trick for his kid. It’s a perfect scene to explain who Thorne is and what makes him tick. He’s a complicated and selfish man being eaten inside out by his own vices, and worst of all, he knows it.
So why didn’t writers Paul Boardman and (director) Scott Derrickson just stay with Thorne’s descent into figurative hell instead of actually throwing him into the hell that has become the Hellraiser franchise? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s more than just a guess to say that because the movie was tagged as a Hellraiser film there must be literal demonic happenings. In fact, if I didn’t know that this was a Hellraiser film, I would never have guessed anything supernatural was going on in the movie’s first hour. All of the supernatural-like happenings could have been explained away as figments of Thorne’s quickly deteriorating mental state.
But of course this is a Hellraiser movie, so Cenobite Pinhead and his legion of odd-looking Cenobites do appear, although for whatever reason I couldn’t possibly imagine, since they looked completely out of place within the movie’s first-hour narrative. And then the second half rolls around, and things fall apart fast. The supernatural hints become real, and instead of treating Thorne’s problems as symptoms of a degrading mental state, we get literal “hell” interpretations. As things take a turn for the worst, all I could think was, “Ah, what might have been…”
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprise if it turned out Hellraiser: Inferno was actually just a screenplay called Inferno that was altered here and there and a completely new ending tacked on in order to pass as a Hellraiser film. This might also explain the lack of special effects, something that has been a mainstay of the franchise’s other installments. Except for a couple of people dissolving and a character morphing into Pinhead, there are sparse special effects throughout the film. Of course, it could just be that this was the franchise’s lowest budgeted movie to date.
As sequels go, I consider Hellraiser: Inferno a far superior film than the original itself, and that’s saying a lot. Now if someone would go back in and alter the movie’s second hour and take out that blasted Hellraiser word from the title…
Scott Derrickson (director) / Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson (screenplay)
CAST: Craig Sheffer …. Joseph Thorne
Nicholas Turturro …. Tony Nenonen
James Remar …. Dr. Paul Gregory
Doug Bradley …. Pinhead
Nicholas Sadler …. Bernie