There’s always a pressure with sequels to outdo the original – it’s only natural. After all, go big or go home has seemed to be the detriment mantra of virtually every follow up ever made; but in the case of Hellraiser, there was a third option… Go Big, go home… or go to Hell.
After Clive Barker’s glorious original introduced the world to the fucked up dynamics of the Cotton family and gave us a genuine, full fledged, fully formed horror icon in the creature known as Pinhead (formally the Lead Cenobite), a sequel was commissioned almost immediately to capitalize on the author’s vision. The scale and budget were due to be greatly enhanced as the sequel was determined to show us more of hell than the single, dusty corridor we saw in the earlier movie, but after problems with some of the financing left the budget slashed like a Cenobite has gotten its bloody hooks into it, could this sequel still deliver on its promise?
After the hellish events that saw her deviant uncle escape from hell, seduce her bored step mother and skin her father alive, Kirsty Cotton wakes to find herself residing in the Channard Institute of mental health after police find her story of puzzle boxes and interdimentional pleasure sadists a little hard to swallow. Trying to gather herself in the wake of such an ordeal, Kirsty is visited by a vision of a skinned being who begs for help via a bloody message scrawled on the wall whom our heroine surmises is her father who must be trapped in hell.
Meanwhile, Dr. Channard, the owner of the institute, proves to be as far gone as lot of his patients when its revealed he’s been obsessed with the workings of the puzzle box and the netherworlds beyond ours and has resurrected Kirsty’s stepmother by feeding her the lifeforce of his patients in order to have a guide. Using a puzzle obsessed mute named Tiffany to crack the box and call the Cenobites, Channard and Julia steal into hell for… well, what seems to be a bit of a wander, actually. Meanwhile, making hell seem easier to sneak into than most nightclubs, Kirsty also manages to forge a path into the endless corridors of the other side in order to find and save her father.
Of couse, if we’ve learnt anything from the first movie, it’s that A) Julia is less worthy of trust than a scorpion starting a pyramid scheme and B) taking the word of anyone missing their skin is just fucking foolish; so as things gradually spiral more out of control than they originally were, Kirsty, Tiffany and anyone else dumb enough to just casually wander into a lethal pain-dimension embark on an odessy that will unlock the secrets of hell and the origins of the Cenobites themselves.
Despite my rather high rating (for which I’ll attempt to justify in a moment), I have to start by pointing out that large chunks of Hellbound: Hellraiser II simply refuse to make sense. Be it due to the fact that Barker stepped down as both director and screenwriter (he has a story and executive producer credit) in favour of Tony Randall and Pete Atkins respectively, or that the budget cuts meant that scenes that would have Bridges the gaping plot holes simply had to be abandoned, the film has as least a many flaws as Pinhead has nails in his melon.
However, when judged on scale and a single minded pursuit of being as gruesomely surreal as humanly possible, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is arguably the most ambitious horror sequel of the 80’s.
Sacrificing as much of the subtlety of Barker’s original love triangle (with added demon sadists) as it can to serve up an expanded canvas, the filmmakers reach far exceeds their resources – but the fact that they’re trying so hard and that everything is up there on the screen is a testament to that low budget, can do spirit, that defined the genre during that anything goes decade.
While almost all of the original cast returns, their story arcs as slammed into overdrive as the film tears through it’s story at a breakneck pace. Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty has a clearly defined mission, but no time to explore it; Claire Higgins goes from step mother to step monster with glee while picking up some bad habit from previous, undead boo, Frank and makes the most of her accelerated screen time and Doug Bradley and his Cenobite cohorts get some (ill advised) back story before getting unfairly bitch-slapped when Kenneth Cranham’s Channard gets a hellish makeover and starts slinging his weight around.
But while the plot and characterization suffers somewhat, the film leans full into the fact that no other horror film around had this kind of imagery and doubles down on being as stunningly crazy as 80’s effect would allow. The lord of hell is a massive, spinning octahedron that enimates black light and honks like a fog horn, Cranham’s Cenobite form is carried around by a giant worm that looks like a syphilitic penis that’s latched onto the back of his head, for some reason there seems to be a dystopian carnival located in the sinister netherworld and the film somehow managed to far exceed the gore quota that Barker sprayed about the place back in 1987 and whenever Christopher Young’s epic score chooses to go hard, then a lot of the threadbare storytelling doesn’t seem to matter as much in the face of such epic sized carnage.
However, one fault that simply can’t be glossed over is the movie’s treatment of the Cenobites and Pinhead in general. A glorious question mark of horribly regal splendour, the Cenobites fall victim to something that manages to take down every mysterious monster sooner or later and that’s a humanising backstory. While we all thought we wanted to know more about Pinhead (aka. curious Captain Elliot Spencer), the moment we find out more about them they lose their power – not just in the movie, as Channard literally makes mincemeat out of them moments after them finding out this revelation – but as actual villains as well; a fact the third movie tried almost too hard to course correct.
However, in the grand scheme of things, Hellbound: Hellraiser II biggest sin is it’s giddy sense of pushing itself to over achieve even though it hasn’t got the resources or subtlety to truly match the first film – but to punish someone for trying too hard would mean I’m no better that the Cenobites themselves and when it comes to batshit imagery and unfettered bloodletting, the filmmakers makes like Pinhead’s skull and utterly nails it…