HELLRAISER; Starring Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Lawrence, Doug Bradley, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines. Directed by Clive Barker. (93 min)
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II; Starring Clare Higgins, Ashley Lawrence, Kenneth Cranham, Doug Bradly, Imogen Boorman, William Hope, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Barbie Wilde. Directed by Tony Randel. (99 min)
ON BLU-RAY FROM ARROW VIDEO
As ‘80s horror icons go, Pinhead was always the most interesting. Unlike Jason or Freddy, he’s conceptually more creative, his backstory more intriguing and worthy of further exploration. Hence, there was plenty of justification for Hellraiser sequels... for awhile, anyway. Sure, the franchise eventually devolved into series of direct-to-video dumpster fires, but the first three films remain well worth revisiting. They are uniquely different from each other in both story and scope, expanding Clive Barker’s perversely compelling universe while instilling Pinhead with an atypical amount of complexity.
Despite his storied standing among horror fans, some tend to forget Pinhead isn’t really a villain in the first two films. He doesn’t become a balls-out bad guy until Hellraiser III, and even then, we know enough about his past that he’s (almost) a tragic figure. As presented in Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Pinhead could be considered one of horror cinema’s first antiheroes.
The original Hellraiser was pretty unique for its time. Author Clive Barker was still a relatively new kid on the block, his brand of dark fantasy being the antithesis of Stephen King, not-to-mention the teen-centric slashers that filled theaters and lined video shelves. Even as a first-time director, no one was better-qualified to put his lurid imagination on the big screen. Considering the relatively low budget, the film is atmospheric and stylish, with gruesomely imaginative make-up effects and violence. Three decades later, the film holds up remarkably well, only a few wonky visual effects disrupting the overall tone. Having not seen the film for a couple of decades, I’d forgotten how little screen-time Pinhead himself (Doug Bradley) actually has. However, Claire Higgins as Julia and Sean Chapman/Oliver Smith as her lover, Frank, make a wonderfully contemptible pair of antagonists, which also compensates for newcomer Ashley Lawrence’s comparatively bland performance as Kirstie.
I might be in the minority on this, but I always felt Hellbound: Hellraiser II was a better film. Though far gorier and disturbing than Hellraiser, this one pushes into the realm of dark fantasy rather than pure horror. More ambitious and visually imaginative, Hellboundeschews the claustrophobic atmosphere of the original to finally show us a concept of Hell that was previously only hinted at. Even Ashley Lawrence improves her game, up to the challenge of making Kirstie tougher and more resilient. The film also features the most twisted villain in the entire franchise: Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), whose detached sadism makes Frank Cotton look a poster boy for empathy. It’s a shame he’s seldom mentioned among horror’s most despicable villains. But the most intriguing aspect of the film is Pinhead’s backstory. Revealing without being over-explanatory, we’re provided just enough knowledge about his past to add a surprising touch of poignancy to the climax.
Both of these discs and their bonus features were first released in 2016 as part of Arrow’s Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box collection. That set also included Hellraiser III and is pretty tough to find without emptying your bank account (here in the states, anyway). Now available separately, both are well-worth picking up since they are considerable upgrades from any previous editions. Each is chock-full of supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries for both films. As someone who thinks Hellraiser IIIis equally deserving of its own comprehensive release, it’s too bad Arrow has yet to make it available. Or maybe I’m in the minority on that one, too, but there’s no arguing Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II being modern classics that belong on any self-respecting horror fan’s shelf.