'Hellraiser: Judgment' Is the Ninth Sequel in a Franchise That Needs to Die
It's a question that plagues horror fans at least once during their travels across Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Shudder, and iTunes: What the hell happened to the Hellraiser series? The first one is good, they remember, and Part 2 was pretty insane... but what happened after that?There were more? Then they realize there are NINE more.
Hellraiser is a fascinatingly bad horror franchise, if I'm being brutally honest. Three theatrical sequels would follow the shocking, 1987 original, with five additional direct-to-DVD sequels bleeding out of the franchise's soul through the 2000s. This week sees the release of the tenth installment, Hellraiser: Judgment, and it's certainly nothing compared to Clive Barker's source material, the 1986 novella "The Hellbound Heart" (which is definitely worth checking out, especially if you dig the first few movies.) But terrible horror sequels are nothing new, right? What makes the Hellraiser series so particularly awful? Let's look at the tape(s).
After writing a number of screenplays, which were turned into objectively mediocre movies, Clive Barker successfully campaigned to make his directorial debut with 1987's Hellraiser. Horror fans can be grateful that he did; the movie is easily one of the most intelligent, provocative, and disturbing horror films of the 1980s. That it came from a first-time director is sort of astonishing, but Barker was a true visionary (before the word was the chew toy of movie marketing).
What's most interesting, and ultimately successful about the first Hellraiser is that the iconic villain ("Pinhead") and his horrific minions (the "Cenobites") don't factor into the plot all that much. They interrupt the plot (about a cheating wife, a clueless husband, his affable teenage daughter, and her sleazy jerk of an uncle) only a few times, making their presence all the more ominous. Uncle Frank is more than villain enough for one movie, and Lemarchand's box is freaky enough. Hellraiser is a great combination of old-school Gothic chills combined with a thoroughly 1980s approach to sex and (graphic) violence, and easily one of the finest horror films of the whole decade.
Less than 14 months later, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) hit theaters, and as a teenage horror nerd who watched a lot of sequels, I found this one to be an unexpectedly gruesome treat. Not only is there some actual plot, cast, and thematic continuity between the first two Hellraiser movies, but director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins do an impressive job of making some very creative divergences. This time poor Kirsty is locked up in an asylum, and her only escape seems to be a trip straight through the Cenobite version of Hell. Fairly ambitious stuff for what could have been a basic "Part 2" repeat. Most horror fans dig this movie, and even if you don't you'll still have to give it credit for not being a simplistic "copycat" sequel. Plus man is it twisted.
Behind-the-scenes issues led to a four-year delay, but Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth (1992) still manages to deliver a half-decent chapter in the Cenobite saga. By this point Clive Barker was only tangentially involved with the franchise, and director Tony Randel was replaced at the last minute, so it's kind of a surprise that Hellraiser 3, about a cocky nightclub owner who unknowingly makes a deal with the demons, turned out to be even half-decent. I remember being slightly disappointed by the "horrors" of this movie when it first came out -- one scene features a Cenobite that spits CDs -- but man does that seem quaint and naive now.
Hellraiser 4: Bloodline (1996) is where the wheels started to come off. While not nearly as terrible as the later sequels, this is weird, misshapen horror movie that had a director remove his name from the project, lost about 30 minutes after test screenings, and was eventually cobbled together with some hasty reshoots. The end result doesn't make a lot of sense as it bounces from the creation of Pinhead's beloved puzzle box to a... 22nd century space station? This would be the last Hellraiser sequel to get a theatrical release.
Dimension Films quickly realized that they didn't need theatrical releases to make money on Hellraiser sequels, as long as they kept the budgets down. Way down. The result is a series of films that barely feel like they have any connection at all to the initial trilogy, and Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) is the best of that bunch, relatively speaking. It's about a dirty cop who discovers that damned puzzle box and gets sucked into all sorts of Cenobite madness. Inferno is a bit dry, and the budget limitations show on occasion, but at least it has a few jolts and a relatively cohesive plot. And that's the last time you'll see the term "cohesive plot" mentioned in this article.
As a viewer receptive to Pinhead's punishment, it's safe to say that everyone involved with the Hellraiser movies through Inferno were at least trying to make decent horror flicks. Parts 4 and 5 are clearly not great, but there's artistry at work. That pretty much comes to a close with Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) By this point Dimension was simply wedging Cenobite scenes into basic thrillers about guys with amnesia. Voila. Sequel magic. This one does bring Ashley Laurence back -- she was the daughter in Part 1 -- and that's kinda cool. But mostly not.
The Hellraiser machine took another three years off after Hellseeker, but they dusted it off for two more chores in 2005. In Hellraiser: Deader, a reporter heads to Romania to investigate a cult that may be (slightly) Cenobite-adjacent. Not a good film, even by B-movie horror standards. A few months later we got Hellraiser: Hellworld, which combined online gaming concepts with basic haunted house nonsense. Henry Cavill and Lance Henriksen pop up. The result was exceedingly not good.
Perhaps Dimension was simply churning out (very) low-budget Hellraiser sequels so as to retain the film rights. Whatever the case, it became clear to horror devotees that each subsequent sequel was basically a placeholder until someone decided to put some real money into a remake, a sneaky tactic that screws the fans, insults the original creator, and basically damages the brand in a big way.
Case in point: the ninth chapter, 2011's Hellraiser: Revelations, is virtually unwatchable. Not only was this the first installment to have someone other than Doug Bradley -- the franchise's sole saving grace -- play Pinhead, but the movie is an incoherent 75-minute mess from top to bottom. It's basically a collection of flashbacks that somehow connect to two guys who went missing in Mexico. I think. While some critics compared this sequel to those low-end Asylum "mockbusters," Clive Barker took to twitter to make things clear: I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin' thing." Surely this was the end of the road, or at least as far as Dimension Films is concerned.
Nope. It's 2018 and we just got the tenth chapter in this franchise that nobody even watches. This latest entry is called Hellraiser: Judgment, because why not, This one's about a detective on the hunt for a serial killer, only he runs into those nasty Cenobites and ... wait. This is almost the exact same plot as Part 5! Is anyone paying attention to the Hellraiser machine anymore?
Aside from some effectively goopy production design once we travel into Cenobite country, there's simply nothing in Judgment that's any fun. The last five chapters in this franchise are basically chores to sit through, and no movie geek deserves that. Especially one who's willing to struggle through these movies for just a few stray moments of horror goodness.
The bottom line: Hellraiser needs to be wrested from the hands of the direct-to-DVD machine and gifted back to Clive Barker. If anyone can find filmmakers who actually like the source material and the first few kick-ass horror movies that started this whole 31-year nightmare, it's him.
(But yes, of course, for those still keeping score at home, Hellraiser: Judgment does end with... another sequel teaser. God help us all.)