Hellraiser Retrospective

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© Copyright Boom! Comics

© Copyright Boom! Comics

With The Scarlet Gospels finally out, I thought now would be a good time to revisit a franchise that’s gone through every permutation imaginable, switching from British to American hands (those of a Disney subsidiary, no less) and then from overblown theatrical productions to cheap straight-to-video fare (filmed in Romania, no less). I find it astounding that Clive Barker’s creation survived a quarter of a century without a campy would-be finale, a big-budget reboot, or a nostalgic revival, popping out instead a serious fantasy thriller every four years or so.

It bears mentioning that I wasn’t introduced to the series, about a puzzle box that can open the gates of hell, in its proper order. When I was a child, my mother, an avid scary movie fan, picked up Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) from the video store, more or less at random, and subjected me to its horrifying delights. To say we were both hooked would not only make for a terrible pun but also a gross understatement. She and I were mesmerised. A week later, we rented the original Hellraiser (1987) and never looked back.

I spent the following years plowing through issue after issue of Fangoria, gathering all the information I could find on the next instalment (this was before the Internet). At the dawn of puberty, I snuck into the premiere of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) at the Festival International du Cinéma Fantastique à Montréal (Montreal International Fantasy Film Fest). This constituted my very first festival screening. Though I was disappointed, my mother and I stayed loyal to the franchise, watching every new release together, except for Hellraiser: Revelations (2011), which I got to see as a movie critic (I then told her not to bother with it).

I know a lot of fans bemoan the series’ jump to the straight-to-DVD market, but we were just ecstatic to see Pinhead (Doug Bradley) in the new-releases section when Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) came to her local video store (this was before Netflix live streaming). Besides, after the overambitious Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), these quiet, isolated tales felt like a breath of fresh air, filling us in on the fringes of the LeMarchand myth. I particularly like Hellraiser: Deader (2005), which confirms that the Lament Configuration has spread its curse all over the world, preying on our desperation as much as our carnal compulsions.

© Copyright New World Pictures

© Copyright New World Pictures

In retrospect, my childhood infatuation with the series seems odd. I, of course, hadn’t read Clive Barker’s source novella, The Hellbound Heart. In fact, you might think a ten-year-old too young to appreciate the complex sexual themes embedded in the first two instalments (often referred to as the true Hellraiser movies), and you’d be right. Back then, I didn’t even know what virgins were, other than that they were rare, pure, generally girls, and required for ritual sacrifices. I did understand obsession, however, and that some calamities reach beyond good and evil.

I suspect this challenging subtext is the reason why Hellraiser remains so dear to me. For all its comic book tie-ins and collectible Pinhead figurines, the franchise has retained its mystique by way of ideas, not spectacle (Doug Bradley’s charismatic performances undoubtedly helped too). Every time I revisit the franchise, I discover new facets to unlock in both the narrative and my own feelings regarding pain, pleasure, and desire. As such, I decided a little while back to go through each movie in the series, posting a review every week. If you haven’t already, I invite you to check them out and share your comments. Perhaps we’ll find our hellbound hearts have much in common.

Reviews

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