Scary movies went through an odd phase in the early aughts. For better or worse, the success of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth sense in 1999 taught Hollywood studios three things. First, big names draw big crowds, so only flicks starring the likes of Bruce Willis should make it to theatres. Second, a twist ending constitutes a lucrative alternative to genuine drama, creating word-of-mouth buzz as viewers argue over its plausibility. Third, talky and ominous makes for cost efficient scares. Who needs digital effects and buckets of blood when you can generate the same suspense with a little boy whispering about dead people?
For the Hellraiser franchise, that meant an immediate revival albeit of the low-budget, straight-to-video variety as per lesson number one. I get where the producers at Dimension Films were coming from. Though Doug Bradley, who reprises the role of Pinhead for the fifth time, is hardly a household name, the series lends itself to a twist-ending narrative, what with its warped puzzle motif. As for the ominous speeches, well, that happens to be the lead Cenobite’s entire schtick, doesn’t it?
I refer solely to Pinhead because everyone else is gone: Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty (though she’ll be back), Julia, Angelique, his fellow Cenobites, etc. In fact, the Lament puzzle box barely makes an appearance because Hellraiser: Inferno is adapted from a screenplay that had nothing to do with Clive Barker’s creation. This results in a couple of awkward moments such as when the demon morphs into a more classical version of Satan to deliver lines with which Bradley could never get away in full costume and makeup. Heck, even his ramblings about flesh and desire feel out of character, condemning the protagonist’s hedonism instead of taking it to the next level.
Having mentioned that, I rather like this interpretation of Pinhead. Sure, the character is presented as a moral judge rather than the ambiguous figure that made Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) instant classics, but he comes an awful lot closer than the cackling maniac from the last two chapters. More to the point, director Scott Derrickson wisely relegates the demon from main antagonist back to a supporting role, which in itself makes him more compelling. Less is more, as they say, and a total of two scenes turns out all the Pinhead we need at this point.
Hellraiser: Inferno focuses instead on anti-hero Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer), a corrupt detective obsessed with apprehending a serial killer who may or may not be a rogue Cenobite. Owing to the film’s twist ending, the resolution to this mystery proves less interesting than Thorne himself, who displays oddly productive sociopathic tendencies. He’s found relatively harmless outlets for his dark impulses and would rather not rock the boat, yet he’s got no qualms framing his partner (Nicholas Turturro) once the chips are down. In short, the guy’s a classic noir protagonist: noble enough to root for but also enough of a douche to deserve what’s coming to him.
Given the budgetary restrictions and previous attempts at shaking up the series to epic proportions, I rather like the idea of presenting a modest story set in the fringes of the established mythology. The issue lies in the filmmakers confusing “modest” with “sparse”. Hellraiser: Inferno features about half an hour’s worth of actual content, tripling its runtime by way of nightmare sequences, eerie repetition, and deliberate incoherence. You know that popular scene in indie horror wherein the protagonist experiences a hellish ordeal, wakes up, and goes through it all over again? We get a lot of that here, and I was bored the first time around.
It’s weird. I remember liking Hellraiser: Inferno considerably more when it came out. Perhaps, following the excesses of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) and Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), its quiet film noir approach struck me as a welcome change of pace. Perhaps I’d been swept up by the twist-ending fad like everybody else. That’s the problem with gimmicks of this kind. If you’ve got nothing else going to drive your story, then what’s to keep us watching once we know the punch?