Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
When a sequel picks up right where the previous film left off, there’s immediate recognition. Often, we’ve had to wait a year or more for the continued saga of (fill in the blank), so it’s exciting to see what happened right after the last movie faded to black. Some horror franchises threw in the towel, like the Friday the 13th franchise, which made an attempt with the "Tommy Jarvis Trilogy" but later opted for a more simplistic rinse-and-repeat approach. The Halloween franchise, meanwhile, made a valiant effort to make it a family affair by connecting Laurie Strode, and then Jamie Lloyd to Michael Myers, resulting in an odd narrative which threatened to go in frightening new directions (the ending of Halloween 4 is genuinely disturbing) but never seemed willing to let go of its famous boogeyman. The Nightmare on Elm Street films, beginning with Dream Warriors, form a loose but at least relatively coherent trilogy. If you ignore the entertainingly bizarre Freddy’s Revenge, then the original film, featuring Nancy “Screw Your Pass” Thompson, actually connects comfortably to Nightmare 3, 4, and 5. Nancy dies at the end of Dream Warriors, but Kristen remains for The Dream Master. Kristen dies, but Alice continues the fight into The Dream Child, so the story and characters carry on relatively smoothly from film to film. The less-said about the awful Freddy’s Dead, the better. Universal Pictures has desperately tried to get its Dark Universe off the ground, but looking at the original films from the 30’s and 40’s, those films featured several cross-overs but lacked any real consistency save for an actor occasionally reprising his or her role. The key word here is consistency.
Several key members of the cast and crew from the original Hellraiser return for a second round of chains, hooks, leather, and blood. Horror films may be the most sequelized of all movie genres and when a main character is played by another actor, we’re forced to suspend our disbelief and just go with it. Fortunately, nearly all of the players are back, likely thanks to the quick turnaround by a studio looking to cash-in on the unexpected success of the original. The story by Clive Barker and screenplay by Peter Atkins, who hilariously bullshitted his way into the job (see the Leviathan doc) jumps right back into the action, mostly ignoring the re-appearance of the merchant at the conclusion since we’ll later find out that the box is less one-of-a-kind but more of a limited edition.
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) opens with Elliot Spencer (played by Doug Bradley sans makeup), a British officer in World War I, opening the Lament Configuration puzzle box. What follows is the origin of Pinhead (now his official moniker)’s look, presented with decent makeup effects shot at an odd shutter speed, likely to mask any unconvincing bits here and there. We quickly move on to Kirsty (Ashley Laurence, again), whose boyfriend has inconveniently vanished (I guess he couldn’t handle the nightmare fuel of the previous film), and who is now in a mental facility. Since I believed the last film took place in England, I was highly confused by the American detective questioning Kirsty. The bumbling “land of the free, home of the Whopper” cops discover (FINALLY!) the room full of corpses in the Cotton home as well as a bloody mattress, which comes into the possession of Dr. Channard (a wonderfully malevolent Kenneth Cranham), head of the psychiatric institute. It turns out that Dr. Channard is a bit of a Lament Configuration enthusiast, nee super fan. In fact, he’s got quite the collection of boxes as well as literature and fun wall art. Needing guinea pigs, he uses one of his more disturbed patients, Mr. Browning (the original skinless Frank, Oliver Smith, in a dual role), kept in a dank, dungeon-like section of the facility, to try a little experiment.
Smith’s performance here as a man who believes swarms of bugs crawl all over his skin is committed and never rings a false note. Handing him a razor, Browning slashes at the “bugs” while sitting on the recovered mattress, upon which Julia (Clare Higgins) died after being drained of her blood by Frank. Thanks to Kirsty’s inadvertent advice, Channard brings Julia back in the same fashion Frank was and emerges from the mattress ready to kill. The filmmakers seem to have great confidence in the skinless body suits because this scene lasts for quite a while. The bloody Mr. Browning desperately tries to crawl to safety while skinless Julia paws at him, their bodies leaving messy trails of blood all over the room. The tension is heightened as Kyle Macrae, Channard’s assistant and played by Aliens’ William Hope, hides behind the curtains, recoiling in horror at the gory proceedings. It took me forever to figure out where I knew Hope’s face from until I saw his reactions during this scene. The same look of disbelief and terror he showed when Apone and the majority of his team had been dispatched matches this scene perfectly.
There are a few detours, but the film moves ahead for a while as a retread of the original. Julia needs more bodies to regain her skin and Channard is happy to oblige. Higgins and Cranham, two old-school theatre actors, bring a genuine chemistry to their scenes together. Higgins is seductive even without skin and Cranham’s fascination, which quickly turns to lust, is played straight and even feels plausible. This is what happens when skilled actors are given material that seems nearly-impossible to play on the page but bring it to life when the cameras roll.
Channard’s pet project is Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), a mute patient who is adept at solving puzzles. Macrae frees Kirsty but is surprisingly killed by Julia, proving that Kirsty don’t need no man! It’s a decent twist since it seemed as though Macrae would be integral to the story but ends up being expendable. Tiffany solves the box, Channard and Julia enter the realm of the Cenobites, and Kirsty and Tiffany follow.
Julia, cunning as ever, tricks Channard, who appears to regret his actions, offering him up to the god of Hell, known as Leviathan. He’s swallowed up in a nasty and invasive fashion. It’s assumed that he’s gone but in fact, somewhere along the line, Channard not only embraces his destiny by becoming a Cenobite, but is now quite powerful. I’m not positive, but it seems likely that Leviathan itself has taken over the doctor’s form and the ensuing fight with the Cenobites may be Leviathan lashing out at them for sparing Kirsty and Tiffany of the pleasures and pain that should await them for solving the box. Julia loses her skin, literally, and while Kirsty encounters the original Cenobites, they’re attacked by Channard. Kirsty had found a picture of Elliot Spencer earlier and reminds Pinhead and the other Cenobites that they were indeed once human like her. Unfortunately, they’re dispatched by Channard in a pretty bland way. It would’ve been much more satisfying if there had been a real battle between these two opposing forces. The small budget is the likely culprit for this, so it mainly consists of the famous hook chains and Channard’s glorious stop-motion tentacle-like weapons, which dispatch each Cenobite rather easily. Kirsty dons Julia’s skin and distracts Channard, giving Tiffany enough time to re-solve the box, dispatch him, and escape with Kirsty, closing the door to Hell. The movie concludes with a moving man being sucked into the mattress and a pillar rising up from floor, covered in faces including Pinhead’s and the Puzzle Guardian.
I found the first half of Hellbound boring, although reflecting on it now, I’ll admit that there are enough memorable scenes which held my interest until the superior second half. Once the box is solved, the movie ramps up considerably. The effects for Cenobite Channard are elaborate and appropriately grotesque, although the phallic attachment on his head seems wobbly, like he’s a marionette. His floating comes off much better in the close-ups of his feet, which was clearly an easier effect to pull off. The removal of Julia’s skin is laughable, like removing a tablecloth without disturbing the dishes, but most of the makeup is good here. Geoff Portass took over as the special makeup effects designer with Bob Keen returning as a consultant. Some makeup work is done a disservice by the cinematography, provided again by Robin Vidgeon. A few scenes are flatly lit, lacking in the shadows that gave the effects their depth. The Cenobite world, though obviously a matte drawing in wide shot, is a desolate world, cold and grey. This is in contrast to the insular but more emotionally charged atmosphere of the attic in the Cotton home from the first Hellraiser.
Tony Randel was an executive at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures at the time of Hellraiser’s release. He desperately wanted to direct and Hellbound is his first and arguably best film, although 1993’s amusing Ticks has its defenders. Since then, he’s been a journeyman filmmaker of often straight-to-video dreck like One Good Turn (1996) and Assignment Berlin (1998). His direction is not overly distracting and there’s even a good idea or two, like allowing the Julia resurrection scene to play out much longer than most directors would have. I was actually working on a horror film once and an actor was supposed to get out of bed after being severely injured. He took easily three to four minutes getting out of that bed and another take had to be done because even though it felt real, it was also interminable.
The first three Hellraiser films have been released as box sets before, with the implication that these films work as a trilogy. I’m hesitantly inclined to agree. Hellraiser 3 requires a few mental gymnastics to reconcile with the contrivances and irregularities of its plot, not to mention the lack of many recurring characters besides Pinhead and a Kirsty cameo. If the third Hellraiser movie didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be particularly damaging to the series, but there is at least an attempt to bring the story to something that resembles a conclusion.
Hellraiser 1 and 2 work well with each other as a two-parter, continuing a story that didn’t necessarily need to be expanded upon. It works in terms of removing Julia from the narrative and allowing Pinhead to officially take his place as the main antagonist for the rest of the series.