For reasons I cannot recall, I didn't watch the Hellraiser movies when they came out, even though I was devouring their franchise peers. Maybe because "Hell" was in the title my mom was opposed*? But I finally caught up over a Christmas break in eighth or ninth grade (1993 or 1994), renting the first three films (Rent Two Get One Free Tuesdays were a godsend for my allowance) and watching them more or less back to back. Alas, I wasn't really into them then; being led to believe they were more traditional "horror hero" movies like Freddy Krueger or Chucky probably didn't help my first impressions, but unlike those films, the Hellraiser series is really aimed more at adults that can appreciate its themes. Yes, Pinhead is awesome and makes for a great toy or model just like Jason Voorhees, but he's not *that* kind of movie maniac, despite the third film's attempts to make him into one.
In fact he's not even the main focus of the first two (and best) films, though his appearance is so limited in Clive Barker's original (and he's not even named yet, given the moniker of "Lead Cenobite" instead) that it feels a bit like a spoiler to show him on the poster and other marketing material. And that is why Hellbound: Hellraiser II is the ideal Hellraiser film, giving you more than a few minutes with the character without making the entire narrative revolve around him. Indeed, after a quick opening sequence showing his human form (also Doug Bradley, of course), he doesn't really show up again until after the halfway point, and I'd guess he still only has about ten minutes of screentime, give or take. But you feel his presence, and now that you're familiar with this world and its characters, it's easier to get involved with their plight than it would be to pretty much anyone who might be watching Hellraiser for the first time, especially a 14-year-old whose only familiarity with it involved the guy with pins in his head (it's similar to anyone being shown the original Friday the 13th today, unaware that Jason isn't in that one).
It's also the best kind of sequel, one that lets the surviving characters continue their journeys while new characters get to kind of rehash the original's plot with different results. The real villain of the film is Dr. Channard, who runs the hospital Kirsty is taken to following the events of the first film. While everyone else thinks her story is insane, he's actually familiar with the Lament Configuration and all that fun stuff, and arranges to have the infamous bloody mattress sent to him. After a horrifying scene where he hands a scalpel to a patient who is convinced he is covered with maggots and usually just claws at them, Julia (Clare Higgins) is reborn, albeit skinless (unlike Frank, there was enough blood to make her mostly whole). So they go about killing folks, but the movie doesn't spend too much time on this - we've already seen it, and the new creative team (screenwriter Peter Atkins and director Tony Randel took over from Clive Barker, who remained on as producer) is smart enough to show just enough to give the idea of what's going on without dwelling on it.
This frees up more screentime for Ashley Laurence's Kirsty, who sees a vision of her father, Larry, trapped in Hell and asking for her help. Aided by Kyle (William Hope, aka Gorman from Aliens) who is the only one who believes her (her dull boyfriend, Steve, is written out quickly and never mentioned again), she lucks out when Pinhead actually lets her roam around Hell when she arrives there, unaware of her agenda and not being in any rush since hell is forever and all that. This subplot actually improved thanks to Andy Robinson deciding not to return as Larry Cotton, allowing for a twist where (spoiler for 30-year-old movie ahead) it was actually Frank who was calling for her, as his personal hell was being taunted by women he could not have, and... well, I guess he figured he'd get around it by trapping his niece with him for eternity to do as he pleased with her. So now instead of a rather traditional story of someone trying to rescue a loved one, we have a sick and twisted thing, which is more Hellraiser-y anyway.
The film's budget was also bigger, allowing us to see Hell and more of the Cenobites (they all return, plus Channard turns into one). Some of Pinhead's backstory starts to fill in (we don't get his real name until Hellraiser III, but we are shown that he's a soldier of some sort, and probably an OK guy as a human), and there's a pretty great little twist where we see that Chatterer was in fact a young child (moral of the story, kids: don't play with puzzles). And Higgins really sinks into her return as the duplicitous Julia, allowing us a glimpse of what the series could have been like had things gone to plan, as she was originally destined to be the franchise's main antagonist. However, Pinhead's popularity with audiences along with Higgins' own reluctance to keep coming back in that fashion had them course correct, so along with the aforementioned issue with Andy Robinson you have to wonder what this series might have been like if they weren't so reluctant to recast its characters (ironic considering that they've recast Pinhead, twice!).
I assume that next film might have been more interesting than Hellraiser III, which as I mentioned did attempt to turn Pinhead into another Freddy Krueger. It started off well enough, with an intriguing idea that Pinhead's human side (now given the name Elliot Spencer) had "split" from the demon Pinhead, who was now just pure evil. But once evil Pinhead takes over the plot around the halfway point and the body count starts rapidly climbing (courtesy of Pinhead massacring a night club, while some awful new Cenobites mow down cops in the streets) it loses all of what made the series interesting, in my opinion. The next film, Bloodline, was a good attempt at restoring things to its previous glory, but the Weinsteins' meddling handicapped its ability to really shine. The next six (SIX!) sequels all went direct to video and are of little use to anyone (to be fair, the most recent installment, Judgment, is a step back in the right direction), though ironically their minimal use of Pinhead - a red flag for some - is actually in line with the first two installments, even if it's probably because they couldn't afford to have Bradley in them for more than a couple days.
It wasn't until I was in college, when the films got released on DVD, that I really started to appreciate them. I was a bit older and possibly even a bit wiser, so I could relate or at least fully understand their themes and not dismiss them over their lack of body count or screentime for the guy on the poster. Alas, by then it was too late to support the films at the box office, as it was around that same time that they started sending them straight to video. Not that they were ever huge money makers (the original's $14m was the series' financial high point - and still lower than any Chucky or Freddy movie), but then again they often didn't even get a chance to succeed, in particular Hellbound which was inexplicably released on Christmas weekend in 1988. So it's possible that a lot of fans have rarely if ever gotten to see this world on the big screen, and that is why I am excited to inform you (or hopefully, REMIND you) that this Sunday, April 15th, Screamfest will be presenting a 30th anniversary screening of the film as part of its monthly "Fears and Beers" screening series at the TCL Chinese in Hollywood. In addition to the film, there will be a Q&A (moderated by yours truly) with Peter Atkins, Tony Randel, and yes, Doug Bradley himself - and if you've ever read an interview or seen Bradley at a convention appearance, you know he is a terrific storyteller (and often quite blunt), plus I'm sure I'll have some stuff to give away for (easy) trivia questions, so I encourage your attendance!
You can get tickets HERE, but I'll happily send one of you and a friend there for free! If you're in Los Angeles (or can be there by Sunday night) and able to attend, just comment below with your own personal favorite Hellraiser sequel and why. I'll pick a winner and inform them on Friday - please leave your Twitter handle or some other easy way to contact you! And follow Screamfest on social media to stay in the loop for the upcoming shows; these screenings have been a blast so far and we love doing anniversary shows, so if your favorite franchise had an installment 30, 25, or 20 years ago it's probably one we are thinking about. They also frequently sell out, so if you don't want to risk it I suggest buying early, especially for this particular one as the rare Q&A of star, writer, and director will probably bring out lots of hardcore fans (not to mention autograph hounds, ugh). Miss out and your suffering will be legendary, even in hell!
*This is a woman who, despite having no problem with violent content, had a "thing" about profanity. She's only sworn I think once in her life (at a driver who almost hit us), and when a song had "hell" in the lyrics (such as Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name"), we had to change it to "heck" when singing along. Maybe my deep love for Bat out of Hell is some kind of subconscious rebellion?