Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth

Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth (1992)
Dir. Anthony Hickcox
Written by: Peter Atkins*, Tony Randel
Starring Terry Farrell, Doug Bradley, Paula Marshall, Kevin Bernhardt

This was the original poster for the film, but apparently it was so intense the MPAA banned it. True story.

    I have to say, I was a bit underwhelmed when I watched HELLRAISER 2: HELLBOUND a couple months ago. I had it --I thought-- on good authority that part 2 was the only worthwhile sequel to the excellent Clive-Barker-directed original in a series which rapidly became a ridiculous cliche of itself before spiraling out of control into a mess of DTV sequels they eventually couldn’t even get Doug Bradley to come back for (I hope he took the time off to make more of his awesome “Spinechillers” audiobook series). People were always bitching about the gimmicky new cenobites and how poor Pinhead keeps getting stuck with a bunch of Freddy-esque groaner puns. But, they said, Part 2 was pretty good. Guess what, it ain’t. Apart from its pretty cool matte painting of Hell imagined as a labyrinth presided over by a giant hovering Masonic symbol, the rest of the thing is an almost EXORCIST 2-level plotting clusterfuck which unnecessarily labors to drag back all the main characters from the original for most of the runtime. Pretty weak, even with some good imagery.

    But you know what? Part 3 kinda surprised me. All the people who told me that Part 2 was decent said that Part 3 was where the whole thing jumped the shark. It’s the origin of the gimmicky cenobites, including that CD one that people are still outraged about, and it sort of fucks with the formula a bit, losing all the main characters from part 1 and 2 and even sort of re-imagining who Pinhead is and what he’s doing. Obviously that doesn’t sound too promising, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered at all had it not been for the direction of Anthony Hickox, son of British b-movie magnate Douglas Hickox (THEATRE OF BLOOD, ZULU DAWN) and director of the amiable and unique WAXWORK, WAXWORK 2 and VAMPIRE IN RETREAT. He would later go on to direct SUBMERGED, one of Steven Seagal’s very worst movies (and that’s saying something), but HELLRAISER III came right on the heels of the WAXWORK movies and I thought there was a dim chance there might be some minor value in it.

Iiiiiii'm the maaaaaaahhhn in the box. (guitar) buuuuuriiied innnnn mah shhhiiiiiyt!

    But weirdly, it starts off pretty fucking good. A novice news reporter named Joanne has been sent to an emergency room in search of a story, only to find that it’s a slow night and she’s wasting her time (and her credibility as a serious journalist). Right away, two things are surprising. For one, the blandly attractive young blond reporter is sort of more compelling than you usually get in this sort of thing. She doesn’t exactly give the most convincing line readings ever, but unlike most of the interchangeable flavor-the-week blondes they stick in horror movies she looks like she vaguely has something going on behind the eyes. Turns out it's because she’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Terry Farrell (at the time around 24) exuding a genuine sense of a young woman both capable and a bit naive.

The other surprise, though, is the better one: this whole cliched premise suddenly turns into a damn fine horror scene. While Joanne talks to her surprisingly well-cast cameraman, a nurse behind her wordlessly sets out a bunch of tools in preparation for an incoming patient, starting with mundane things like stethoscopes and slowly drifting towards scalpels and finally a bonesaw. It quietly ratchets up the dread, so when a body covered with chains and fishhooks bursts through the door, we’re already afraid we know what might be under the white sheet. What follows is a genuinely disturbing bloodbath which can hold it’s own next to anything out of the original two HELLRAISERS.

And then the movie stays pretty good. We get introduced to J.P, the sleazeball owner of one of those S & M metal clubs I guess they had in the early 90’s and his girl, a hard-living runaway named Terri (who may be the only witness to the previous bout of Pinhead-related mayhem). These are pretty stock horror characters, but again, they are better played and better developed than they have any real reason to be. Terri particularly is an interesting character; It’s hinted that she’s an abuse survivor, and sort of stuck with Kevin Bernhardt’s asshole club owner even though he treats her like shit. She doesn’t care at all about puzzle boxes or alternate dimensions or experiences beyond limits where pleasure and pain are indivisible, but when she hooks up with Joanne (who is looking into the story behind the little hospital fishbook chain dismemberment incident from before) she’s almost pathetically eager to please her**. Her naked vulnerability and desperately earnest need for companionship makes her an unusually sympathetic character for this kind of movie, and ups the stakes quite a bit. But even that fucker J.P. isn’t quite allowed to be completely one-dimensional. He may be a statutory-raping manipulative asshole who chain-smokes cigarettes during sex with underaged female employees (not exactly a gentlemanly move in my opinion, but what do I know, this isn't Dear Abby) ...but once Pinhead shows up in his pad he’s as horrified as anyone. And when Pinhead goes on to taunt him about his own fucked up childhood, it’s hard to not feel a little bad for the guy.

Worst blue man group show. Ever.

And then there’s Doug Bradley himself, who as you may recall impressed me with his excellent work in PUMPKINHEAD 3: ASHES TO ASHES and his audiobook readings of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s pretty good here as both Pinhead and as Elliott Spencer, the British Military man who descended into madness and cenobitary and medically unnecessary acupuncture after emerging from the horrors of the World Wars. Bradley plays Spencer as a surprisingly warm, deeply sad man who is faced with the horrific physical embodiment of his own darkest traits. Unlike the misguided attempts of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remakes and the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, this time adding a backstory to the series' central monster actually fleshes out the character and makes him more interesting, rather than demystifying him and adding a bunch of pointless baggage. Because Bradley plays both sides, we can see the way in which Pinhead and Spencer resemble each other both physically and mentally. Spencer’s army training and real-life experiences of bottomless horror find a logical extension in Pinhead’s highly organized, eloquently articulated nihilism and need to find new boundaries of pain. It manages to make Pinhead a sadder, but equally menacing, figure.

Add all that texture, and you’ve got a horror movie with a bunch of familiar tropes but a bit more character than strictly necessary. And if that doesn’t do it for ya, you’ve also got some pretty imaginative gore, a memorable prop in that sculpture thing that Pinhead is stuck in (from the end of Part II) and finally a full-on massacre in the metal club, where Pinhead slaughters everyone in sight. It’s a fun but pretty standard slaughter scene, but again, two details give it unexpected heft. We see the terrified patrons run towards the door, but Pinhead blocks it from inside, and we’re left to hear their tortured screams and watch the blood seep out from under the locked door. A welcomed but pretty conventional touch, until it becomes clear it’s not going away. We’re left to ponder the expanding bloodpool for what seems like an unbearably long time, which slowly shakes you from your familiarity with this shot and makes it seem fresh and disturbing all over again. And then just to get a little more mileage out of it, you also have to have poor Joanne walk through the exquisitely detailed aftermath, looking in horror at the bodies of her slaughtered friends who she knows were only there because she asked them to come help her out. This sequence very nicely ties the emotional tension generated from the better-than-average character work to the imaginative gruesomeness of the contractual HELLRAISER gore, and comes up with something memorable and genuinely good.

This is exactly the sort of thing you just can't really find insurance for.

Unfortunately, despite all of Hickox’s good instincts he fails to stick the landing and the fourth act falls apart as he throws in a bunch of silly gimmicky cenobites (who even Pinhead has to apologize for, explaining “they’re handmade, a shadow of my former troops”) big explosions, iffy early CG effects, and unconvincing attempts at running by Farrell, who, lets face it, was probably a better model than track star. It’s almost astonishing how fast it manages to piss away the good will its built up, but it’s undeniably pretty easy to feel not just unmoved, but outright betrayed by the laziness of the climax. Admittedly it improves at the very end, but the “hand-made” cenobites are pretty unforgivable. The bartender at the metal club becomes “Barbie,” a bar-themed cenobite who mixes cocktails in metal shakers and throws them so they explode like grenades. That’s the kind of crap they give us after tricking us into genuinely being invested in the characters. The cameraman become “Camera head” who has a camera in his head, because of irony. The D.J. at the club... ah jeez, I don’t want to talk about it. This whole sequence screams of studio interference, and sure enough, Hickox would almost disown the finished product just as HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES director Kevin Yagher would. But he must have believed in the film enough to put a lot of himself in it, because he appears in not one but two cameos, including a moment where we see him interviewed on TV as himself. He might have kept his face out of it if he’d been able to see the end result, but there’s enough serious effort being put forth on screen for most of its runtime to make it worth your while. And even if the climax is a bit weak, there’s a final twist at the very end which is so out-of-the-blue and audacious that I immediately resolved to watch HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES. Talk about pleasure and pain being indivisible.

*As far as I can tell, this is not the famously pugnacious atheist, chemist, and author who, when asked for his opinion of the existence of God, responded "Well it's fairly straightforward: there isn't one. And there's no evidence for one, no reason to believe that there is one, and so I don't believe that there is one. And I think that it is rather foolish that people do think that there is one." Still, I think if they ever met the two Pete Adkins could bond over the scene here where Pinhead goes into a church and crucifies himself while laughing maniacally at the idea that God exists.

**In fact, the way Terri moves into Joanne’s pad and spends most of her time there in varying states of undress makes one sort of wonder if there’s more to this relationship than is explicitly shown.

1: HELLRAISER (1987)


Joanne and Terri have a few significant conversations about the box, their lives, etc.


BOOBIES: Yeah, one nicely gratuitous sex scene between minor characters.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Yes sir, Pinhead ups his body count by about 1,000%.
SEQUEL: Number 3 of a series that's now so numerous and excessive they've stopped giving them numbers.
MONSTERS: Cenobites, but nothing like that weird arm-walking thing. Was that from part 2? I may have to take back some of that shit I talked about it earlier.
SATANISTS: Pinhead seems to scoff at traditional religious notions.
ZOMBIES: For the first time, the dead return as cenobites.


  1. Gonna bite my tongue on this one.

  2. No no, by all means, I'm sort of curious to hear your take. Presumably you didn't like it as much as I did?