When news broke of what tortures Dimension Films had in store for the Hellraiser franchise after the lackluster performance of the Alan Smithee directed fourth installment, I essentially gave up on the franchise almost sight unseen. Their plan was to utilise horror scripts that nothing to do with Clive Barker’s original but the retool them to slightly fit the franchise’s vibe with Doug Bradley’s regal Pinhead popping up for a cameo here and there to really hook things together. From there the movies then would be dumped directly to DVD to keep the slashed budgets highly profitable – hell, it seemed, was now working for Miramax with no reprieve in sight.
However, years after ditching a franchise that started with arguably one of the best horrors of the 80’s, I understandably got the urge to metaphorically reopen the Lament Configuration puzzle box and peer inside out of sheer curiosity – if that’s not pure Hellraiser, I don’t know what is – and while what I found was mostly pain, the fifth entry was surprisingly pleasurable…
Detective Joseph Thorne is your typical corrupt, dickweed, movie cop in that he slams back drugs and enthusiastically pounds on hookers and informants (in two very different ways) despite being “happily” married. However, the overconfident way he swaggers through the streets of Denver takes a temporary knock after he and his partner are called to the scene of a brutal, ritualistic murder that’s left the guy in more pieces than a pack of IKEA furniture and things get steadily weirder when Thorne finds out he once knew the guy. Of course, the fact that Thorne’s a sizable prick soon rears its head again when the puzzle obsessed Detective swipes a familiar looking box from the crime scene and when he gets a minute to himself he tinkers with the thing and manages to solve it.
Soon after, Joseph’s life spectacularly lands in the toilet and proceeds to get dragged screaming round the u-bend as a string of horrific murders occur that are intrinsically link to him. A hooker he visited the night before is butchered in the motel room they fooled around in, a creepy informant of his is whipped to the bone and he has horrifying visions of being seduced by mutilated, leather-clad, twins and chased by a legless, featureless creature with chattering teeth. It seems that Thorne has somehow stumbled across a mythical, murdering crime boss known only as “The Engineer” who is taunting him with every murder by leaving the severed finger of a kidnapped child at the scene that drives the detective ever closer to madness.
As the visions increase as Thorne gets ever closer to his goal, the question must be asked: how is any of this related to that strange puzzle box that the detective decided to screw with?
So first, some management of expectation. Those expecting the haunting, domestic fairy tale of the original, the epic, fantastical horror of the sequel or even the pop culture mash up of the third may initially feel short changed as the greatly reduced budget means that Inferno has to cut back on some of the usual, Hellraiser extravagances in favour of a more Stark feel. Because of this, when I first watched it, I’ll admit I’d kinda written it off before I’d even pressed play on my remote control, but a more recent reappraisal has changed my mind somewhat and despite some obvious flaws, Hellraiser: Inferno stands up a hell of a lot better that I’d first thought.
The main reason for this is partly due to this movie being the feature debut of none other than Scott Derrickson, he of Sinister and Doctor Strange fame, who manages to keep the labyrinthine plot moving as best he can while dropping in some fairly startling imagery here and there. While this merging of Clive Barker’s universe with a horror infused detective tale isn’t as seamless as it could be, the sight of two horny, bimbo, Cenobite twins literally getting under Thorne’s skin and a torso-only variation of the Chatterer creeping up a flight of stairs keeps things Hellraiser-y enough to pass muster on a basic level. In fact, the treatment of Pinhead as more of a supporting character who drops in and out of the story properly fits the vision of the first couple of movies much more than the chatty arch-villain he eventually became and rightly puts him back to work as a chief torturer from hell.
The other reason Hellraiser: Inferno manages to escape its direct to DVD roots as well as it does is because of an intense, central performance by Craig Sheffer who, in a nice touch, completes a Clive Barker twofer after playing the lead in Nightbreed. Giving the material probably more respect than it probably deserves, he charts the impressive meltdown of his morals-optional lead as his obsessive quest to nail a mysterious criminal drags him down the rabbit hole thanks to a well-placed hook and chain.
Not everything works and some of the more esoteric filmmaking choices score some dead air such as Thorne weirdly getting beaten up at a Western-themed gambling den by two kung-fu cowboys – however, while the big twist at the end isn’t quite as majestic as the script thinks it is, the revelation that (SPOILER) Thorne has been in hell ever since screwing with the puzzle box in the first act and we’re experiencing his eternal torment is still pretty neat. It even goes a fair way to show what getting fucked over by the Cenobites actually feels like and comes across as a more long lasting punishment than the mutilation hinted at in previous movies – I mean, you can only skin someone alive so much, right?
While my initial suspicion was still technically correct – Inferno is a random horror story with Pinhead literally tacked on at the end (Tacks? Pins? Get it?) – it’s a minor miracle that this cobbled together fifth installment of the franchise works as well as it does.
Much like those pesky Cenobites, it ain’t pretty, but it gets the job done and done bloody.