Dir. Alan Smithee (in reality, Kevin Yagher)
Written by Peter Atkins
Starring Bruce Ramsay, Valentina Vargas, Doug Bradley
Remember those simple, naive days, back when I reviewed HELLRAISER 3: HELL ON EARTH and was surprised that --aside from the significant decline in quality at the last act-- it was actually a pretty respectable little horror movie, particularly considering it came from the 1990s? Of course you remember that, so it stands to reason that you also remember that it tantalized me with a completely crazy final twist that immediately made me want to see if HELLRAISER IV would be as insane and awesome as it had every right to be.
Well, the answer is that it’s exactly as insane as it has every right to be. Not so much with the awesome. Instead of the awesome, they thought it would be a good idea to substitute a generous helping of shittness even for the fourth movie in a dubious franchise that probably didn’t need to go past the first one. Let me be blunt, this is a horrible, horrible movie with almost nothing redeeming about it save its towering ambition and the utterly unbelievable disaster its hubris leads it to. I mean, wow, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, or ever, thank God.
Obviously part of the abject awfulness of this movie comes from the studio interference (though who could blame them if they were getting a look at the dailies). That Alan Smithee directorial credit should be an immediate indicator of a troubled production, and indeed someone who either is director Kevin Yagher or an borderline-illiterate friend of Kevin Yagher added this to the IMDB trivia section: “Kevin Yagher disowned the version with cuts made behind his back due to conflicting artistry ideas. Yagher's version contained much more graphic imagery, plot, and explained everything that happened in the film. The producers disagreed and demanded Pinhead should appear sooner despite every version of the script up until then having him appear around the 40-minute mark. When Yagher was unable to satisfy he disowned it and never finished filming some final scenes. Joe Chapelle was brought on to finish the film, filming new scenes from re-writes including the narrative framing device. Some scenes of the original script were thus never shot.”
|The original twist ending for CUBE,|
While it’s good to know that somewhere in Kevin Yagher’s brain there’s a cut of this film which “explained everything” and is obviously superior in every way, the real problem here is more fundamental, and there’s just no way of cutting the film to improve it. The problem is that the movie is simply not nearly well made enough to realize it’s wild ambitions. I like the craziness of setting a Hellraiser movie across 400 years, two continents (plus space, the final frontier) and dozens of generations where the male offspring always look like Bruce Ramsay with a different haircut. I like plenty of the wacky additions, including but not limited to the chatterer dog, the twin cenobites, the demoness Angelica, the robotic puzzlebox solver, the unexplained holograms, the space marines. But boy, is it all pulled off with exactly the chintziness you’d expect of a special-effects guy (he did Freddy’s makeup, The Crypt Keeper, and Chucky) directing a monster movie in 1996. If this was going to work, it would have had to be good. And it ain’t good.
Wait a second, did I just say “spans 400 years, two continents, and space, making it THE FOUNTAIN of Hellraiser sequels?” Well, that’s kind of a paraphrase, but yeah. This particular Hellraiser concerns a curse upon the descendants of Phillip L’Merchant, 18th century French toymaker who designed the first puzzlebox (which also goes by it’s hoity-toity nickname, “the Lament Configuration”) for a rich depraved Duke of some sort so he could kill a prostitute, cut her skin off, conjure a demon to live in the skin, and then fuck the demon in a human skin in a way presumably more kinky than any human hooker would be up for. Boy, if only they had better porn back then, this could all have been avoided. But no, rich guy’s gotta fuck a re-skinned demon woman, so great, now we’ve got the evil demon princess Angelica (Valentina Vargas) loose in the world. So yeah, a little bit of a twist on the ol’ Hellraiser formula.
|Another robot putting honest blue collar puzzle solving Americans out of work.|
Wait, what? When? Princess Amidala who? Where’s Pinhead? How did cenobites even get into the world prior to 1784? Oh wait, Pinhead wasn’t around back in 1784, because Captain Eliot Spencer didn’t even get his hands on the box until 1921. So I guess this chick is the new Pinhead? Or maybe Pinhead used to be a girl? What’s the deal? We don’t know, but she kills the guy who summoned her and then spends the next 212 years having kinky sex with his creepy butler until she remembers that, oh yeah, she cursed the toymaker guy and his descendants and she probably ought to get around to doing something about that. She’s the patient type, that Angelica. But now that she’s done with the demon fucking, she’s motivated to find the conveniently named John Merchant, who is not exactly incognito given that he’s just won a major architectural prize for designing --good lord, what’s this, it can’t be!-- that crazy office building that looks like a giant puzzlebox from the end of part 3! Turns out that part of the Merchant family curse is that they’re genetically predisposed to be obsessed with puzzleboxes. It’s kind of a letdown, because the way part 3 ends with Lt. Dax hiding the puzzlebox in wet cement makes it look like the building grew there from a puzzlebox seed, which is way cooler, but oh well. Anyway, turns out that the damned thing is still there in the basement, so Angelica hops a plane over to America, pulls the box out, and summons Pinhead.*
Finally, Pinhead, and we only had to wait 212 years for him! But there’s the problem: we’ve already established that the conflict is between Angelica and the Merchant family (Philip L’Merchant in 1784, John Merchant in 1996, and in 2127 Dr. Lando iMerchant2000). So Pinhead’s sort of a third wheel here. He’s quickly on board with her plan to force Merchant to use his puzzlebox expertise to create a giant puzzlebox gateway to hell sort of deal, but otherwise doesn’t seem to have a dog in this fight, although he does now have a dog, don’t know if I mentioned that earlier. It looks a little like if Chatterer from part 1 fucked one of those rat-wolves from WILLOW, so obviously it’s a highlight here. Problem is, the producers of this film are correct that we don’t really give a shit about Princess Angelica’s plans for global domination any more than we cared about that charmingly roguish old Irishman druid in HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (MASK, ALSO THE SKELETON AND PUMPKIN). We want some fucking Pinhead action. Now, imagine if Michael Myers had been in HALLOWEEN III, but as a kind of pussywhipped sidekick to the uninteresting main antagonist. That’s HELLRAISER IV. I know the studio fucked with it, but shit, this was a terrible idea from the start. The studio intervened to make Pinhead more important, but that just made things worse because once he appears he just sort of takes over, even though this particular grudge match has nothing to do with him, eliminating any actual drama that might have once been at the core of this conflict.
|Yeah, unfortunately none of the cenobites from HELLRAISER 3 could be here with us today...|
So, long story short, Pinhead tries to force Merchant into helping them in their evil plans (actually kind of like the plot to THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, come to think of it), there’s a long but pretty good sequence where he turns two security guards into this nifty grafted-together twin cenobites, then he’s foiled and has to wait another 131 years for another crack at it. Only this time, future Merchant (you know it’s future Merchant because he’s bald like that chick from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) will be ready for him. Also there’s an adorable early CG puzzle-solving robot, some holograms, space marines, and a transformer.
All this is plenty amusing, but something with this scope simply needs to be better made if we’re going to get much mileage out of it. On paper it seems pretty cool, but in reality it’s mostly not trashy enough to be fun but nowhere near decent enough to be taken seriously. The lighting, camerawork, editing... all scream mid-90’s studio hackwork, and arrive with all the intensity and atmosphere of a Kriss Kross video. The acting, too, is all that weirdly stilted sitcom acting that I guess people liked back then. Doug Bradley is reliable as always, and poor Bruce Ramsay is definitely trying hard, but if there is indeed an actor who could have pulled off this three-parts-across-400-years role, Ramsay ain’t him. Actually Valentina Vargas is better than you might think as Angelica, creating a somewhat more believable threatening villainess than you typically get in this sort of crap. But honestly, the cast is so low-rent that I can’t find a single interesting thing about the career of any of these screwballs (although Pat Skipper, who played “Carducci” whoever that might be, went on to play a member of the Scottish Mafia named “Glen Livitt” in John Leguizamo’s “The Most Dangerous Game” update THE PEST, and “Redneck” in INDEPENDENCE DAY, so I guess he must have some range.**)
|Behold! The awesome special effects power of... computers!|
And you know, it is kind of a shame because there is a grain of true greatness in here. Pinhead beat Jason to space by a full 6 movies, and it turns out to be a perfectly acceptable arrangement for him. Pinhead is weird enough to work in any setting or century (he even appeared in that daisy field in broad daylight in part 3, remember that?). The epic scope of the movie is pretty cool, as is the way it connects this long chain of human tragedy in this family -- I mean, its pretty epically harsh that these poor Merchants go 400 years getting their asses handed to them by cenobites (although if the movie is any indicator, only 3 guys in all that time are affected by it, which actually seems like pretty good odds all things considered. Hell, poor Kirsty from Part one had to fight them twice, and she’ll be back again for part VI). But the actual construction here is just too shoddy to get anything much out of the scenario -- in fact, when all is said and done, there’s not really much to connect our three eras besides Bruce Ramsay’s face (but not hair) and his misfortunes with various cenobites. It’s almost an anthology of three vaguely related uninteresting poorly done shorts rather than a full feature. The central conflict doesn’t even begin until Pinhead enters the picture halfway through, and then it stops abruptly at the end of 1996 and picks up 131 years later, all momentum gone. The original script (which you can read online) was purely chronological, but to really underscore how any of these events are connected a less linear edit might have helped (the studio guys were right, I think, to stage the whole thing as a flashback from 2127, even if they just did it to get a Pinhead appearance in sooner).
I admire it’s tenacity, but watching the final product it’s pretty easy to understand why this was the last script originally written for the HELLRAISER franchise until 2011 (in fact, it would start the trend of Pinhead being shoehorned unnaturally into an unrelated story, but at least he has more than two scenes here). After the epic failure of this one both critically and commercially, no writer would (to date) attempt the kind of grandiose, imaginative mythos that made the Cliver-Barker-directed original so cool and was mimicked with various levels of succes in part 2, 3, and now 4. Instead, we’d get muddled, convoluted stories with almost nothing to do with the cenobites and certainly nothing to do with expensive special effects and audacious production design. It was time for the series to follow the PUMPKINHEADs down the dark road to DTV slumdom. It was time for Pinhead to face the ultimate destiny of any franchise that ventures here: co-starring with Lance Henriksen. But first, that guy who played Boone in NIGHTBREED, the chick who played Kirsty Cotton in the first two, that guy Paul Rhys who played both Charlie Chaplin's AND Vincent Van Gogh’s brother (not at the same time) and finally, some guy who isn’t even Doug Bradley.
Obviously it’s a lonely and desolate road that I am about to tread, but hey, that’s the Lament Configuration for you. Open it and you’re gonna get... hooked.
*He greets her with a “Good to see you again, Princess!” but I don’t know how that’s possible since she’s been on Earth mucking about since 1787 and he’s only been around since 1921, but maybe he looked her up in the years between HELLRAISER and HELLRAISER 2. Maybe that’s what Yagher means when he says his original version “explained everything.”
**Also, the sleazy butler “Jacques” that Angelica wastes 200 years with is the first acting role of Adam Scott, who is unknown to me aside from playing “Novak” in PIRANHA 3-D, but may be better known to some as Ben on that TV show “Parks and Recreation” if you’re into that sort of thing.