It happens to the best of them – that moment where a burgeoning horror icon becomes the main character in their own franchise to the eventual detriment of the franchise in general. Freddy went from being a filthy old dream demon to horror’s version of a wise cracking game show host while Jason went from the lumpy headed lunatic hiding in your closet to being a superpowered juggernaut and while you can’t fault these transformations when fan support all but demands it, it ultimately means that what made these creatures initially so special is inevitably diluted.
With this in mind, the third Hellraiser movie presented the chance for supporting character and franchise poster-boy Pinhead (formerly the artist known as Lead Cenobite) to take centre stage to become the story’s central villain with a healthy dose of retconning and a greatly enhanced role. But just because there’s demand more of a fan favorite character, it doesnt mean the movie containing them is a good idea – so could Hellraiser III manage to do justice to Clive Barker’s original vision while managing to pin down it’s spikey new lead?
Morals-free nightclub owner J.P. Munroe is not only a walking billboard for rape culture, he’s an unbearably smug art collector too and his most recent purchase is really going to tie the room together. The piece, a giger-esque pillar populated with numerous screaming faces, immediately starts to cause more trouble than it’s worth when a patron of J.P.’s club, The Boiler Room (ugh), gets ripped apart by chained hooks after disloging a familiar cube shaped puzzle box from the ugly structure. Witnessing this grisly version of the walk of shame while trawling for stories at an L.A. hospital is frustrated reporter Joey Summerskill, who decides to go after this “story of a lifetime” (man dies in hospital? What a scoop!) by tracking matters back to The Boiler Room and J.P.’s ex-girlfriend Terri. However, a strange death will be the least of everyone’s problems when, after a freak bleeding accident, it’s revealed that pillar contains the demon half of the Cenobite known as Pinhead who was separated from Elliot Spencer, his human side, during the events of the previous movie and the resurrected creature makes a typically faustian pact with the unscrupulous J.P.: free him and be rewarded.
Being so greedy he doesn’t even question how a pillar with a talking face could possibly grant his most perverse wishes when it can’t even scratch it’s own nose, J.B. feeds the odd bimbo to his new flatmate until he decides to include Terri in this horrifying guest list, but Joey’s investigating (not to mention having the while plot spelled out to her by Elliot Spencer’s ghost while in a dream) means she has a chance of stopping this potential disaster. But now severed from his human half this new, unrestrained Pinhead now has no laws to bind him and sets his sights on creating some new buddies to inflict unrelenting carnage on an unsuspecting L.A…. Pfft, like we’d notice.
At time of release, Hellraiser III rightfully drew criticism for taking Clive Barker’s highly visceral, yet extremely thoughtful look at faustian pacts and lustful obsession and turning it into an over produced cartoon that features a character called Camerahead punching a hole through the head of bewildered slacker with his eyeball mounted lens. Even now, thirty years later, the accusations still hold water as all the original, mature and complicated themes are filtered through a director with all the subtlety of an 80’s Saturday morning cartoon and a script that digs its hook into “cool” when it should be shooting for scary.
Director Antony Hickok, he of genuinely entertaining goof-fest Waxwork and the little-seen vampire western Sundown, seems genuinely jazzed to sink his teeth into a Hellraiser movie but then attacks the material with his usual, flashy style, assaulting us with swooping camera work, exaggerated perspective and constant whooshing sounds whenever anything moves particularly fast. It’s like he’s far too impatient to build any genuine mood and is as desperate to play just as much as the restrained Pinhead and some of the performances noticeably suffer under the constant onslaught of unessesary crash-zooms. Paul Marshall as the vunerable party girl Terri and Kevin Bernhardt as the predatory douchey J.P. are actually pretty good, but likable lead actress Terry (Deep Space Nine) Farrell acts like the only direction she got was “again, but prettier.”.
While the finished film may fly in the face of the creeping domestic dread of the first movie, it’s weirdly watchable in a stupid, early nineties sort of way and never is this more evident than in the treatment of the villainous Cenobites. Pinhead may now be dealing in the same type of nefarious dealing that Frank and Julia previously engaged in, but Pete Atkins’ script gives the guy a serious case of verbal diarrhoea by confusing verbose with chatty and the new Cenobites personify the film’s attempt to make what already an incredible concept an unnecessary “cool” makeover. Take the CD Cenobite for example who ejects discs from a player embedded in his chest and flings them at victims like shiny ninja stars; or how about the Barbie Cenobite who hurls a cocktail shaker filled with gasoline at people and blows fire from his mouth like Godzilla – stoping just short of having a Cenobite having a skateboard nailed to it’s feet and a can of Tab Clear protruding from it’s throat it’s still not exactly what Barker was envisioning back in 1987 I’d wager.
With all that being said, despite the final act tipping dangerously into slasher territory (The film has a bodycount that would put a Bond movie to shame thanks to a nightclub massacre), Hellraiser III has more ideas up it’s leather sleeves than your usual horror cash in, even if it’s budget regularly isn’t quite up to the strain. In the dreams where Joey relieves the wartime death of her father, Vietnam looks suspiciously like North Carolina in the fall and the Hell On Earth of the title basically amounts to a club full of dead party goers (no big loss considering the 90’s fashions on display) and barely a hundred thousand dollars worth of property damage – but you feel that the filmmakers are actually trying and that counts for something.
Also, after two movies of anonymity, I simply wouldn’t and couldn’t fault Pinhead actor Doug Bradley for rightly relishing a hugely expanded twin role which heartily embraces the duality of good and evil; and the scene where the hellish hellion performs a entertainingly super blasphemous version of the last supper while pulling nails from his head and sticking through his palms, actually wins through as the character’s most memorable moment in film.
There’s a lot wrong with Hellraiser III and it may be the ominous herald of the downward spiral of the franchise into direct to video hell (ironic) – but Hell On Earth’s copious carnage and dopey charm make it a far sight more watchable than some of the entries to come, stupid neo-Cenobites be damned….