When horror hounds speak of “the original Hellraiser”, they often mean both the 1987 thriller and its follow-up Hellbound: Hellraiser II, not realising the latter was helmed by a different creative team entirely. I bring this up not as an excuse to criticise the fans but as a testament to the seamless way writer Peter Atkins and director Tony Randel have expanded Clive Barker’s vision. In this respect, their sequel ranks up there with the likes of The Dark Knight (2008), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and, while we’re at it, The Godfather Part II (1974).
This is not to say the film reaches these cinematic heights. Rather, I’m suggesting its take on the themes and characters has become integral to our understanding of the franchise. Despite its awkward “Previously On” opening, I admire how Hellbound: Hellraiser II appropriates the myth, balancing the demands of an eager audience with a sense of narrative consistency. Consider the challenge of giving us more of the Cenobites while retaining their mystique. Randel gets over this hurdle by delving into the mechanics of their hell dimension but focusing on a new antagonist: Dr Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), head of the psychiatric ward where Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) finds herself following the events of the first picture.
His purpose consists of bringing the heroine (and the audience) to the Cenobites’ home realm, which requires a fair bit of convolution, given their modus operandi. Rather than take the obvious shortcut of introducing a new mystical doohickey, Atkins’ screenplay reassembles the established concepts, widening their scope as Channard resurrects Julia (Clare Higgins) and manipulates mute savant Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) into solving the gateway puzzle box. The mad doctor’s taken every precaution in his quest to uncover hell, but he didn’t account for Kirsty’s own obsession with protecting her late father.
The plot devolves into complete incoherence as it approaches its climax, but maybe that’s the point. If Hellraiser worked as a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, its sequel plays more like a warped take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with Kirsty and Tiffany serving as Alice, Channard as the White Rabbit, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) as the Cheshire Cat (or possibly the Mad Hatter), and Julia as the Queen of Hearts. The latter even says so herself: “They changed the rules: the wicked stepmother has become the evil queen!”
Hellbound: Hellraiser II also expands the franchise’s central theme from carnal lust to general obsession, depicting Channard not as a lowly pervert but as a sociopath who’ll stop at nothing to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. Take, for example, his passive reaction to Julia’s femme fatale routine. The man clearly shows more interest in the woman’s knowledge of hell than in her feminine wiles, which provides some justification for the extreme and often gratuitous violence in the movie.
Mixing death with sex is inherently creepy, you see. Why else would serial killer flicks have drawn from the same well since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960? Death and personal gain, on the other hand, seem like natural partners in our world. Think of the weapons manufacturers, the insurance firms, and the actuaries who measure the financial implications of letting an employee die. In light of this grim reality, the filmmakers have to ramp up the gore and shock value if they hope to convey the horror of pursuing one’s ambitions at any cost.
Channard’s extreme cruelty also serves to explain why he presents a more urgent threat than the Cenobites, who come off almost benign in comparison. Consider their decision to spare Tiffany despite her opening the puzzle box: “It is not hands that call us but desire!” The reasoning alludes to dark stirrings within Kirsty, given she’s never extended the same courtesy. More to the point, the scene remains to this day my favourite interpretation of Pinhead and his crew, creatures who, lest we forget, were once described as “angels to some”.
At the start of this review, when I listed classic sequels, I forgot to mention James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which pinpointed every element that made the first instalment a success and threw it all back at us in a perfect fury, hoping we’d dodge the kitchen sink. Similarly, Hellbound: Hellraiser II satisfies the fan in me to such a degree that I can’t think of anything more I’d have cared to learn about these characters and universe. In other words, the film’s extreme pleasures may well have damned the rest of the series.