Third time’s the charm, as they say. After the lacklustre Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) and abysmal Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2003), Dimension Films finally brings the series back to its former glory, or at least the level of glory one can reasonably expect from a straight-to-video B release. Like the two former entries, Hellraiser: Deader is adapted from a screenplay unrelated to the franchise (hence the awkward title). The difference lies in Neal Marshall Stevens’ original story having some actual meat to it and co-screenwriter Tim Day doing extensive rewrites to ensure a deeper connection to the established lore.
The film stars Kari Wuhrer as Amy Klein, a fringe journalist sent to Bucharest in order to investigate the Deaders, a cult of Eurotrash zombies who videotape themselves committing suicide and then walking away unscathed (aside from, you know, a gaping bullet hole in the head). As it turns out, their guru, Winter (Paul Rhys), has ties to the Lament Configuration that go all the way back to Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), and he’s found a new way to solve the puzzle box, one that would grant him dominion over Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his Cenobites.
Once again, the narrative is interspersed with nightmarish visions from which the protagonist wakes just as all hope is lost. However, this time, the dreams have consequences, and they move the plot forward, not back. As a result, we get a genuine sense that Amy’s actions are driving the story, tipping the scales in the ethereal war between Pinhead and the Deaders. For all its twists and turns, Hellraiser: Deader spares us yet another gimmick ending in which viewers discover they’ve wasted an hour and a half of their lives. Instead, we get a good old-fashioned fantasy thriller with a compelling heroine and unique set pieces.
Robert Rodriguez claims “creativity, not money, is used to solve problems.” Certainly, Hellraiser: Deader is at its best when working around its budgetary restrictions. Take the movie’s Romanian setting, for example, the way it limits production costs all the while expanding the scope of Clive Barker’s mythology. Better yet, compare the redundant pyrotechnics of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) with the macabre inventiveness of setting a mystical S&M club aboard a subway train, having Amy snatch LeMarchand’s puzzle box from a chained zombie, or forcing her to figure out how to remove a knife jammed so deep into her back its tip is popping out of her chest.
It helps that Wuhrer commits to every absurd circumstance, portraying Amy as a lost soul who derives strength from her existential ambivalence. Like Joseph Thorne from Hellraiser: Inferno, the character owes most of her traits to the film noir tradition, from her morbid curiosity to her quick wit when holding a cigarette. I find the genre suits Hellraiser rather well, perhaps because it deals with obsession and hints at the lurid. I love that the climax rests entirely on our heroine’s state of mind: whether she’s, as Winter claims, a desperate runaway seeking to numb herself from a childhood wound or, as Pinhead teases, a glutton for knowledge who’s abandoned all boundaries.
Incidentally, we’re back to my favourite take on the lead Cenobite. The enigmatic creature in Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Helraiser II (1988) was never meant for cackling villainy or sanctimonious finger wagging. At his most compelling, he serves as a philosopher of extremes, a symbol of cravings that dig beyond good and evil right down to our primal senses. Pinhead’s conflict with Winter raises an interesting question about the way we, as a culture, cope with pain: is it better to sublimate our suffering, as the Deaders do by turning themselves into zombies, or to revel in it like the Cenobites?
These are esoteric notions, I realise, and the movie sometimes loses itself in its own metaphors. Consider the way Amy resolves the above-mentioned dilemma. Early exchanges point to an interpretation that involves rebirth and catharsis, but her final gesture is more often associated with death and damnation. As a result, I suspect newcomers to the series will find the conclusion near undecipherable, not least because it demands in-depth knowledge of the Hellraiser mythos. For long-time fans, though, Hellraiser: Deader comes as a welcome surprise, and really who else would watch the seventh instalment of an eighteen-year-old cult franchise gone straight-to-video?