MYTHICITY: (1, 2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
After reviewing the first two films in the HELLRAISER franchise months ago-- the first one here, and the second one here-- I'm currently trying to work my way through the following six films, which will put me up to date on all but the 2011 HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, which alone does not feature the highly iconic Cenobite "Pinhead." The results so far have been mixed. Though I gave the first two films "good" ratings re: mythicity, I tend to think that the franchise, like that of HALLOWEEN, has an extremely limited range of expression, so that it's difficult-- though not impossible-- to execute a decent series by diverse hands.
In my review for HELLBOUND I had no small praise for the way director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins created a mythology for Clive Barker's somewhat sketchy short-story concept. Since writing that review I've linked that infernal mythology to Atkins' enthusiasm for the British horror-author Arthur Machen. However, though Atkins is the credited scripter for both the third and fourth films, he doesn't adequately explore the mythology of Pinhead, Hell and Leviathan in his next outings that he helped create.
HELL ON EARTH was directed by Anthony Hickox, whom one might have thought to be a good match, given his previous success with the two WAXWORK films, which mixed surrealism and sadism in equal measures. Unfortunately EARTH, as if to fit its subtitle, is a mundane and workmanlike letdown. Plainly the film's script wanted to get away from the first two films' emphasis on the convoluted "family romance" of Kirsty Cotton, and this in itself was a creditable idea, since Kirsty's involvement in the Cenobite saga was played out. But Hickox and Atkins chose for their new viewpoint character one of the most routine types possible: the ambitious lady reporter. Struggling telejournalist Joey accidentally witnesses an unbelievable event: the sight of Cenobite chains, tearing apart one of their victims in plain sight. Joey senses a story in this bizarre event, and investigates various people who either witnessed the event-- street-girl Terri-- or who were involved in similar events in the past. At one point Joey watches a videotape of an interview with Kirsty, who's been condemned to an asylum for trying to tell the truth about the Cenobites. Nothing further is done with Kirsty in the film, so for me the interview accomplishes little except to make this viewer want to see something more done with her character.
Both Joey and Terri, the principal viewpoint characters, are achingly dull, and the film only comes alive when Pinhead (Doug Bradley) shows up. He has a strong scene where he parodies the Christian resurrection, but his overall mythology is corrupted by a terrible conceit. This version of Pinhead can re-animate dead bodies and magically equip them with super-weapons, suggesting that Hickox's film might've been better named ZOMBIE TERMINATOR. The idea of a Cenobite who can shoot deadly CDs from his mouth demonstrates that the filmmakers had totally lost touch with the original idea.
HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE is at least better than HELL ON EARTH in that it attempts to expand on the Cenobite mythology, in particular by telling the story of who created the demon-unleashing box known as the Lament Configuration. However, BLOODLINE, like EARTH, also suffers from a careless appropriation of tropes from the domain of science fiction. Originally, the storyline was supposed to evolve chronologically, showing the demon-box from its creation in 1700s France to its recrudescence on a space station in the twenty-second century. The studio reputedly interfered, insisting that the film needed a sequence with Pinhead toward the beginning to help sell the film. Thus the narrative opens with one of the space-station scenes, uses sequences in 1700s France and 20th-century America for the "body" of the film, and then returns to the 22nd century for a big finish. I can't say whether the original order of events would have worked for me any better than the finished product, which was completed by Don Chapelle when original director Jeff Yagher walked off the project. However, even allowing for the interference, none of the characters in any time-period are particularly memorable, and Pinhead doesn't get much in the way of memorable lines or action. There's an attempt to create a new female demoness, Angelique. This development might be regarded as a partial return to a discarded idea, since at the time of HELLBOUND's production one idea was that future installments might be built around the remorseless Julia Cotton. However, though Angelique gets a few lively scenes of torture and mayhem, she doesn't rate as any sort of rival to Pinhead. The pincushioned one even apparently perishes in the far future, though the script's assertion that he's suddenly vulnerable to light sounds like yet another impoverished idea-recycling.
Just when I'm thinking that the franchise can't offer any more pleasures aside from listening to Doug Bradley's orotund speaking-voice, along comes HELLRAISER: INFERNO, directed by Scott Derrickson, who also co-wrote the film with Paul Boardman. One review faulted the script because Pinhead's physical appearance is minimal. But INFERNO succeeds just where the previous two installments failed. Clive Barker created in his short story and original film a vision of Hell concocted out of images of modern-day pain and anxiety, as opposed to the medieval images that still inform the popular image of the Judeo-Christian "inferno."
Derrickson accomplishes this by organizing his narrative around a tough yet possibly corrupt police detective named Thorne (insert obvious Christian symbolism here). Thorne is brought in to investigate the horrific murder of a victim slightly known by the detective. On the scene he finds a mysterious puzzle-box and opens it, partly because he himself is "good with puzzles" (Thorne's own self-characterization, and one that strongly implicates him in all that follows). Thorne seems to be the archetypal dedicated cop, willing to "march into hell" to save the innocent, but the deeper his investigations go, the more he's dragged into a world that merges the grunge of real life (tattoo parlors, prostitutes) with the chittering and capering of semi-human creatures.
Anyone who knows the oeuvre of Cornell Woolrich will probably guess where the narrative is going, but it's to Derrickson's credit that he never does give the audience an explicit "Big Reveal." Even at the end, Thorne's fate, like his guilt, is ambivalent. The noir conceit works here thanks to an intense, dynamic performance by the underrated Craig Sheffer, who also gets good support from Nicholas Turturro as the detective's partner. The only false step in the script appears toward the climax, when Pinhead shows up to lecture Thorne on how he's allowed his "flesh" to conquer his "spirit." I know that the Cenobite's cassock-like attire makes him look a little like a Catholic priest-- but I don't think Pinhead, denizen of a sadomasochistic hell, ought to SOUND Catholic.