JANUARY 3, 2012
I'm pretty sure Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth was the first Hellraiser film I actually saw footage from, courtesy of a trailer that played (along with Dr. Giggles and Innocent Blood) before Pet Sematary 2 in August of 1992 (yes, I remember all of that, but can't remember my niece's birthday). I'm sure I had heard the titles, and I know I had seen photos in Fangoria because this movie was on the cover of the first issue I ever bought, but somehow the series had passed me by. I'm not sure when I actually saw it; sometime between then and the early 1996 release of Hellraiser: Bloodline.
And I'm pretty sure I haven't seen the whole thing since; I might have watched it again around when Bloodline came out but can't remember for sure, but even if so that means it's been at least 17 years (more than half my life!). That's mainly because it never got a proper DVD release - just full frame copies, and of dubious quality to boot. It was also an MPAA mangled film, and some of the footage has been restored but not all, and at different times, so there's even some question as to what cut you'll get should you find a copy (Echo Bridge has recently released it along with some of the other sequels) - 93 minutes seems to be the most complete that's legally available.
That sort of confusion is perfect for the movie itself, which starts off great and ends badly, to the extent that I wondered if two scripts were jammed together at the halfway point. Pinhead fans will disagree I'm sure, but the moment he is freed from the pillar and takes over the narrative (just over its halfway point), the movie turns to junk. The concept is interesting; basically Pinhead and his human form of Elliott Spencer have split, which means Pinhead is now completely evil and causing chaos for his own amusement, but all this means is that the movie turns into an FX showcase while Doug Bradley stands around cackling. You can really see the Elm Street influence here; it's "cool" to look at and Pinhead is making jokes (not as much as Freddy did, but he's certainly more "fun" than in the previous two entries), but doesn't have much to do with the original concept, and sure as hell isn't scary or suspenseful in the slightest.
But that's nowhere near as horrible as the new cenobites, all of which seem to have been designed during a stoned trip to Best Buy. One has CDs sliced into his head and also throws razor sharp discs at victims (I Come In Peace did it better!), and another has a video camera in his head and says things like "That's a wrap!" after killing someone. There's a scene where they charge down a street and kill a bunch of cops that seems lifted out of any random Terminator knockoff, and throughout that and just about every other scene in which they appeared I found myself wondering if Clive Barker had signed off on any of this nonsense. It's worth noting that this was the first Dimension release in the series, and while the Weinsteins were not involved as far as I know, it's certainly the beginning of the long, slow death of this series.
And it's a shame, because again, it starts off pretty great. The idea that Pinhead is trapped in a pillar of souls is interesting, and the human villain JP is tasked with supplying him with victims in order to be reborn - a fun spin on the original's plot. I also enjoyed the mystery angle, courtesy of heroine Terry Farrell as a reporter who saw a guy get torn apart by chains. Some of the later sequels took this route as well, so it's interesting to see its first incarnation, even if it ultimately results in getting to hear Pinhead's backstory (and reduces the need for Kirsty Cotton, who appears in a single throwaway shot). Granted, Pinhead's history has more built-in interest than say, Jason Voorhees, but still - it's common knowledge that the more you learn about your villain in any horror franchise, the less interesting/scary he is. The only benefit here is that it allows Doug Bradley to act a little more out of the makeup, giving the film some additional class as he's a pretty great actor. And I like the "split personality" concept, but the execution is hardly perfect, and is bogged down by the terrible new cenobites and unfortunate change of locale.
That's the other thing - this is an "American" production, unlike the original two British features. Director Anthony Hickox is from London, true, but it was shot in North Carolina, which in the 90s was what Louisiana is today - the go-to spot for shooting low budget horror movies. So the great atmosphere and architecture of Hellbound has been replaced with generic nightclubs and Anytown city streets, which doesn't help the movie any, especially in retrospect. Pinhead's makeup is fine, and this was one of the last big FX driven horror movies before CGI reared its pixel-y head, but this isn't an Evil Dead sequel - it's a Hellraiser movie. The story and themes should come first, and while there are some strong elements of both, it ultimately feels too separated from the others to measure up, and worse, now we can point at it to know exactly when things started to go wrong. I've long said that this is the one series that just gets weaker with each installment, but I think Bloodline might be a bit better than this; it's also messy, but nothing in it is as terrible as "Camerahead". Egads, man.
What say you?