Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) said pretty much all there was left to say about Kirsty, Julia, and the universe Clive Barker created for them, so it comes as little surprise the producers would want to go in a different direction for the franchise’s third instalment. As such, Anthony Hickox’ Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth relocates the series to the big city, introduces a new protagonist, redefines the villain’s motives, and replaces the previous films’ S&M motif with lots and lots of things going ka-boom! God, there are a lot of explosions in this movie.
If flashy pyrotechnics strike you as an odd fit for Hellraiser, welcome to the club; we serve punch and pie on Wednesdays. In fact, the new aesthetic stems from Miramax acquiring the franchise and trying to turn it into something more, well, American. Take, for example, the revamped design for Pinhead’s (Doug Bradley) pillar-shaped prison, the way its mock gargoyles reflect a more Christian interpretation of evil. Even the film’s color palette seems warmer, closer to what one might find in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. Come to think of it, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth features an awful lot of dream sequences for a horror flick that doesn’t star Freddy, and Pinhead has grown into somewhat of a chatterbox.
Screenwriter Peter Atkins provides a clever explanation for these changes. Following the events of the second movie, Elliot Spencer’s soul has been freed from the Cenobite curse, leaving Pinhead a vapid, irredeemable embodiment of his darkest obsessions. Trapped in the Pillar of Souls, the demon coerces JP (Kevin Bernhardt), a slimy club owner, into feeding him enough flesh and blood to break free. Meanwhile, his ghostly counterpart enlists the help of failed journalist Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) to avert the titular hell on earth.
The role of smooth-talking devil sits uncomfortably with Pinhead. After all, the demon’s new modus operandi resembles more that of Frank or Julia Cotton than anything we’d seen from the Cenobites in the previous instalments. Still, I dig his scenes with JP’s ex, Terri (Paula Marshall). Their final conversation proves spectacularly chilling, partly because Marshall knows to convey as much innocence as desperation in her troubled character, partly because Bradley could recite the lyrics to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and make them sound compelling.
Then Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth gets really, really goofy. Some blame the design for Pinhead’s new breed of Cenobites (or, as I like to call them, Manobites), which consists of taking a single attribute, like a DJ job or nicotine addiction, and jamming a weaponised version of it somewhere on the character’s noggin. Admittedly, the Conehead with the sixteen-millimeter barnacle and seventies porn mustache makes me chuckle every time he comes on screen, but my issue with the climax lies in its complete lack of imagination: why must every demon in Hollywood pictures blow up a church while laughing maniacally?
Mind you, the movie’s got some decent concepts. For one, I rather like the subtext of Pinhead’s blasphemous antics. The idea is that, after the First World War, nihilism, not lust, led Elliot Spencer to Leviathan’s puzzle box: “The war destroyed my generation. Those that didn’t die drank themselves to death. I went further.” As such, the monster born of his obsessions can’t help but deride any notion of morality, purpose, or spirituality. He is, in the truest sense, an antichrist without being the Antichrist.
Granted, this proves a radical departure from the established character: a fair-minded, almost gentle explorer of the senses who can no longer tell pleasure from torture. However, Atkins gives the Hellraiser mythos an out of sorts, a way for the series to get back on track after this instalment. It’s as if the writer knew his bosses’ insistence on making a generic slasher would irk fans, so he developed the story in such a way that it could be dismissed as a fanciful digression. The downside: it doesn’t make Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth any less of a step down from the original.