Shiny Shelf

Hellraiser DVD Collection

By Mark Clapham on 01 October 2004

‘Hellraiser’ was an odd kind of horror film, but it was an even stranger basis for a franchise. With parts five and six on the way in the US, here’s a DVD collection of the first three instalments to remind us how it all began…

Clive Barker’s original film is still the best of the lot. Adapting his own novella ‘The Hellbound Heart’, writer/director Barker builds a sense of creeping menace and twisted sexuality as a suburban housewife helps save her dead brother from the hell that lurks beneath the walls of their house. The London setting is a suitably mundane backdrop to the surreal unreality bleeding in from hell: a skinless and bleeding man; unearthly lights rolling across the slats in the walls, emerging from between the bricks; bondage clad demons, Cenobites, claiming their prey. In Barker’s world sex, pain, blood and desire are all as carefully interlocked as the pieces of the puzzle box that is the film’s chief mcguffin. The result is an unnerving juxtaposition of the everyday and the frankly horrible. There’s something chillingly sordid about the promise of sex being used to lure sweaty salesmen to their deaths, and when the unreal intrudes in the form of the Cenobites, skilful lighting and sound design emphasises their unearthly nature.

‘Hellraiser’ isn’t a perfect film by any means. Some of the optical effects have dated badly, and Ashley Laurence isn’t the most exciting lead ever seen on a movie screen. However, there are more ideas on screen here than in two dozen slasher flicks, and the execution of the freakish, fetishistic Cenobites is a triumph of costume and make-up. Barker’s visual imagination rules the screen, and ‘Hellraiser’ is a minor redefinition of the horror genre, albeit one that few filmmakers could ever hope to build on.

‘Hellraiser II: Hellbound’ is a lesser movie, even though it uses Barker’s fascinating mythology more extensively than the first film. In fact, that’s its main flaw. ‘Hellbound’ beautifully expands upon the world of the Cenobites, taking us deep into hell and showing us the dark god that rules it, Leviathan. We get a room full of puzzle boxes and other riffs on the first film. And there lies the problem; the film is a bit too involved in its fanboy self indulgence, and rarely bothers to scare of shock. The first film had a couple of ropy effects, but the sequel really overreaches itself – some of the images on screen are startling, but many fail to entirely convince. And surely this must have been one of the very last films to use old-skool stop motion for its monster effects? One almost expects Morph to come in and start fighting with the Cenobites, or the clockwork owl from ‘Clash of the Titans’ to pop into shot.

‘Hellbound’ isn’t irredeemable, and has plenty of good scenes. Doug Bradley, as Pinhead, the chief Cenobite, gets a bit more to do this time and a flashback to his character’s genesis is one of the film’s best moments. Kenneth Cranham is good value as deranged head of a psychiatric hospital, a setting that proves suitably disturbing. Unfortunately, ‘Hellbound’ isn’t the sum of those parts, instead being weakened by its own self-absorption and occasional cheapness. Director Tony Randel clearly hasn’t got as good a handle on Barker’s material as the man himself. And who decided to relocate the whole thing to the US in between films?

‘Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth’ is the slickest of the first three films, and represents the series’ final transition from Cricklewood to Hollywood. Doug Bradley is the only one of the previous cast to make the leap to this new production, which stars ‘Trek’ nobody Terry Farrell as a crusading journalist who gets involved with Pinhead and his human counterpart after the Cenobites are unleashed in an S&M club. The subject matter retains the series’ darkly sexual elements, but smooths them out into standard US film sexual transgressions – all girls in cages and people dressed like Marilyn Manson. Both the more creepingly fetishistic elements of the first film and the fantastical sweep of the second are ditched in favour of more straightforward horror, with a number of bystanders transformed into a new gang of Cenobites. Doug Bradley really steals the show, with Pinhead getting one exceptional scene in a church. It’s an entertaining enough movie, directed with a nice sense of tension by horror hack Anthony Hickox. The visuals are pretty smart, and the dawn of CGI at least avoids the dodgy effects of parts I and II. The most striking image of all is the final shot of the film, which takes us back to the themes we began with – that underneath the everyday world there are sinister forces waiting to be unleashed.

This cheap DVD box set is a good primer in Clive Barker’s most popular property, and at the very least provides three different takes on an interesting set of ideas from one of horror’s finest minds.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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