Monday, 18 June 2018

Why Hellraiser is rubbish

"Wait!" I hear horror fans cry, "It's one of the best and most original films of the genre!" And you are correct. Except I'm talking about the franchise. The first movie is awesome, but most (if not all) of the nine sequels have failed to live up to the original. How can you make nine movies in such a way that none are great? Here's how...

Greed. That's how. Which is appropriate given the nature of the Cenobites - dimension-hopping murder-bastards who prey on the lustful and sinful. It transpires that Dimension Films got their mitts on the license some time in the late 80s or early 90s, after the first sequel. Yes, folks, that's Mr Harvey Weinstein's company. To be fair (and put fashionable Weinstein-bashing aside) Disney owned Dimension whet it picked up the rights in the late 80s and made six of the sequels. Then Dimesnion was sold to The Weinstein company in 2005, who made a further two sequels.

To retain the rights the owners have had to keep 'exploiting' them. No, this is not a lust-demon pun but the actual term used when a licensee has to keep 'doing stuff' with an IP in order to retain the rights they have. If they let their rights fall fallow by not doing stuff then the rights revert to the original owner. Failure to exploit is why Kenner/Hasbro made the most epic fail of losing the Star Wars license in the late 80s. The need to keep exploiting is why, until 2015, Sony kept making lacklustre Spiderman movies. So Dimension, under two owners, has been pumping out low-budget movies for the last thirty years in order to retain their rights.

I should, at this point, say I've got a lot of sympathy for the creatives behind these movies. I've just watched the 2018 Hellraiser Judgment [sic] and it's not great, but it's also not that bad. The team is doing the best they can with IP they clearly love. But with no budget and no marketing support. And if you think that's bad just imagine the added pressure of Mr Weinstein descending on you if you mess it up.

The reason I'm writing this piece is because the IP has such potential. It's a shame to see it exploited in both senses of the term. Watching Judgment got me thinking about the influence of the first movie, and how awesome some of the spiritual-successors to the original are. Here are some of the best:

Agony is a video game I've been watching for a while and it went to full release earlier this year. It takes the player into a full-on body-horror vision of hell, and pulls no punches with some bonkers creature design. How awesome would it be if Hellraiser did that? Turns out I'm not the first person to think of this. Hellraiser: Origins was an indie project that tried to reboot the series with a grand scope but, alas, never got off the ground.

I'm a big fan of Silent Hill in all its guises. While its visual influences are rather more diverse than Hellraiser, it draws on the underpinnings of the 80s classic. Imaginatively-named 'Pyramid Head' (shown above) appears as an enigmatic (if less loquacious) exuctioner in the vein of Pinhead. Perhaps it's time for Hellraiser to ditch the comedy-body-horror-fetish tropes it's fallen into (I'm looking at you, here, Mr 'CD Head' from Hellraiser: Hell on Earth) and hire a art director as inspiring as Masahiro Ito (who did the original creature concepts for Silent Hill) or Patrick Tatopoulos (who worked on the movie).

Alex Proyas' 1998 Dark City features antagonists who are clearly heavily inspired by the Cenobites. What I really like about this movie is the twist you discover mid-way through. Without spoilering it for you, it would be great if such a mind-bending cosmology were injected into Hellraiser. Sequels and comics have indeed given a slightly garbled backstory to the Cenobites, but something more surreal, menacing and down-right inspired would do the IP justice.

Wish-listing aside, it looks like the Hellraiser franchise may be in for a period of change, for good or for ill. With the declaration of bankruptcy by the Weinstein Company in February this year Lantern Capital emerged as the winner of the studio's bankruptcy auction. It remains to be seen what happens to Hellraiser. Sometimes the sale of a company triggers clauses in a license where the licensee's rights revert to owners, but given this seemed not to happen when Disney sold Dimension to The Weinstein Company that doesn't look likely. Lantern may choose to break-up and sell on the assets, so who knows where Dimension may end up. 80s geek IP is big business at the moment, with companies like Paradox gobbling up IPs like White Wolf (with their World of Darkness IPs) and more recently Harebrained Schemes (including the BattleTech IP). Even Freddie is back in 2018 with a new movie Nightmare: Return to Elm Street. Here's hoping the eventual owner sees fit to do something with the IP rather than just exploiting it in every sense of the term.

Further reading:
A Very Brief History of the Hellraiser Franchise
How we made Hellraiser
12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser


  1. I have to disagree with some of what you're saying in that not all of the sequels are cringe-worthy Hollywood trash that exploited the Hellraiser mythos.

    The fifth, sixth and seventh films sort of return to form; they tell a story about the central character's fall from grace without trying to copy the original. As with the first film, Inferno, Hellseeker and Deader seemed to understand that Pinhead and the Cenobites aren't the main characters, indeed, they're not even meant to be characters in a typically theatrical sense, but rather they're an anthropomorphised mechanism of retribution for the wicked.

    Whilst I agree that the fifth, sixth and seventh film lack the visual artistry of the first and second film, their stories are worthy enough homages to Clive Barker's original vision.

  2. I've seen the first three Hellraisers and that was enough for me (actually, the first two were enough). The scripts seemed to get worse and Pinhead became more and more a standard 1980s slasher baddie, quipping and chasing teenagers around.

    For me, the real problem is that the world of Hellraiser 1 isn't very big, and the more I learned about the cenobites, the less awe-inspiring they seemed. I do wish that someone would do decent adaptations of the Books of Blood, especially Rawhead Rex (Les Edwards' comic is pretty amazing, if gross).

    What do you think of Nightbreed? I reckon that could be remade very well: the original never quite lived up to its promise.

    1. "For me, the real problem is that the world of Hellraiser 1 isn't very big, and the more I learned about the cenobites, the less awe-inspiring they seemed."

      This was a big part of the issue, I think, along with killing off most of them in the second film. Kind of ties in with Gretchin's comment about how the Cenobites work better as as an avatar of retribution than as characters themselves.

      The other aspect of that, I feel, is that for all the visual inventiveness, so much of the action felt kind of unimaginative. You'd think beings working on pushing the boundaries of sensation would have got further than hooks and blades and needles. I can give the earlier ones a bit of a pass on this, since humans hadn't pushed the (theoretical/fictional) boundaries of such things so far back then, but it became more of a disappointment with each successive film.

  3. My favourite example of "need to exploit" is the Roger Corman Fantastic Four from the early 90s. They weren't actually required to release the film, just start production by a certain time, but then somehow the idea that the film never had to actually be completed didn't get communicated, and it snowballed into an actual thing. Not much of one, since they spent over half their budget on the Thing's costume, but still. Also, it has the Human Torch punching out a laser beam, which is kind of awesome.

    I'm not much of one for video games, but I love the Silent Hill movie. I didn't watch it for way too long because I made the mistake of paying attention to the reviews, but it became an instant fave once I did.