Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Here’s an idea for a movie. Remember when all of those confusingly American cops were interrogating Kirsty in a decidedly British setting? What if they actually did their job? What if they tried to get to the bottom of why there’s a pile of corpses that have been drained of all their blood? Why are people being torn apart by metal hooks that appear out of nowhere? What happened that night in The Boiler Room? How did those cops get burned alive and why are all of those stores now smoking wrecks when there are no signs of any explosives? Maybe if the detectives had surveyed these scenes and thought, “Huh...that’s weird,” something might've been done about the unexplained phenomenons which occurred. If the cops had asked those, I don’t know, obvious questions, we might end up with something resembling Hellraiser: Inferno (2000).
Acting like a bizarro Mike Hammer-type, Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer) wears a permanent scowl throughout Inferno, gruffly narrating his actions as he drugs and whores his way through Denver while his long-suffering partner Tony (NYPD Blue’s own Nicholas Turturro) helplessly watches on. He finds a strange box at a crime scene and...I think you know what happens next.
Or do you? No, no...you know, but the getting there... I was merely pondering in my Hellraiser: Bloodline piece that Hellraiser: Inferno was two scripts mashed together; a relatively common practice in Hollywood and a cost-saving way to utilize scripts gathering dust in the corner or languishing in development Hell. Sure enough, according to the man himself, Doug Bradley, the script by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (who have cornered the market on damnation/religion-based scripts with this, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Devil’s Knot (not precisely supernatural but still involving witchcraft), and Deliver Us From Evil) was originally a detective story that was retrofitted to be a Hellraiser film. There’s a little back-and-forth here, with Derrickson’s camp claiming it was an original Hellraiser concept, but I’m dubious, to say the least.
In a perfect world that’s interested in artistic expression and not money or profit, this movie would NOT be called Hellraiser: Inferno. It would be called Redemption or Broken Promises or something random and generic like that. You’d be watching this weird little detective movie, wondering what the Hell is going on...and then Pinhead shows up. You would’ve had your mind blown. Remember Split (2016)? Ever since The Happening (2008), I’ve felt betrayed by M. Night Shyamalan and believe that he should not be allowed to ever write a script again. Directing? Fine. Writing? Abso-fucking-lutely not. I haven’t watched Unbreakable (2000) for many years, but I was elated when Bruce Willis showed up at the end of Split. What a surprise! How cool is that?! The Hellraiser franchise doesn’t have a spotless reputation, but a bait-and-switch like that would have been jaw-dropping for anyone going into the movie cold. Honestly, the most baffling part of this whole situation is how much strife Kevin Yagher went through on Bloodline to bring Pinhead up to the beginning where Derrickson doesn’t have him appear until well into the third act except a 5-second spot near the beginning. Technically, that does count as an appearance, but I wish it were gone so his appearance would be a bit more surprising. Granted, it could also come off as a “jump the shark” moment, but beggars can’t be choosers. I think Miramax/Dimension simply didn’t care that much about the franchise anymore and let him do whatever he wanted.
So, what are things to do in Denver when you’re dead? Welp, let’s solve the box and see. Sheffer plays Thorne with a mock intensity that’s never particularly convincing, but he carries the film with adequate aplomb. He’s basically a garbage person. Stealing drugs from crime scenes, lying to his wife and child, and taking money from the evidence room and using it to pay for hookers. After solving the Lament Configuration, his hooker is killed (aren’t they all?) in an odd scene where Sheffer is looking down when he pulls open the shower curtain but it’s later revealed that the hooker was impaled on the shower head and hanging upwards, making his eyeline seem completely wrong. What was he looking at? The tile? Thorne, being a real prick by the way, plants evidence at the hotel that would implicate his perfectly nice partner in the murder of the hooker so he can blackmail and keep tabs on poor Detective Tony. Real classy move there, Joe.
There’s a psycho killer called “The Engineer” who is killing Thorne’s friends, including an informant named Bernie (Nicholas Sadler, who doesn’t look like a Bernie), the owner of a pornographic ice cream truck. At each crime scene, Thorne finds a finger or two, presumably belonging to a kidnapped girl who acts as the Macguffin of the film. One very noticeable facet of this Hellraiser is that it’s light on the gore and heavy on atmosphere. A videotape, which later turns out to be blank, is played by Thorne in a bar, which I thought was pretty rude and inconsiderate. I was waiting for someone to complain, but never mind. It shows his buddy getting whipped with the cat o’nine tails, mostly offscreen. Another Hellraiser film would have reveled in the splattery close-ups of such a sequence, but this film is more interested in psychological damage rather than actual violence.
A very strange detour takes us to a cowboy-themed casino run by Mr. Parmagi (the great character actor Michael Shamus Wiles), whose unmistakable voice I immediately recognized from Fight Club (1999). It's a fabulous single scene which honestly feels inconsequential and pointless but is at least interesting. Up until this point, things have gotten weird but it’s mostly ground in reality with the occasional dream sequence thrown in for good measure. The real breakdown begins at the hospital. Thorne goes to see his parents and unnaturally deformed patients and overly positive attendants appear as he makes his way down the hall. Things get even more wild when he goes home and finds some unusual weather in his hallway (snow) and his wife and daughter nailed to a pillar (of souls?). James Remar, who is in this movie, by the way, plays a psychologist and a priest with very little to do except offer advice which is fairly mundane. However, in a scene that would be much stronger if it hadn’t been so obvious, he’s revealed to be Pinhead (Doug Bradley). What follows is the best, most creative, and well-executed effect in the film, which is ironic since the earlier transformation from Remar to Pinhead is a horrible CGI effect. Thorne’s family first freezes then shatters into a million icy, bloody pieces. Very impressive and reportedly the effects budget was only $50,000.
Things go admirably haywire as Thorne has to battle all of his dead friends along with re-imagined Cenobite-style creatures. There’s a nifty flashback scene involving delicious-looking brownies and his mother, eyes gouged out, blindly slashing at him while his father attacks from behind. There are a few fake-outs, including a callback to a fellow detective who couldn’t take it anymore and blew his head off, but we reach our conclusion when Pinhead reveals that Joe’s been in a labyrinth of his own making since he solved the box and will stay there forever.
I’ve found positive aspects in every Hellraiser film thus far, but Hellraiser: Inferno may be the first one that gains a real rewatchability factor. Since the title practically gives away the twist, it’s best to try and ignore that fact and focus on the story at hand. Give in to the frightening, twisted, and surreal world and there are some real goodies to discover through repeat viewings. The movie is about a sinner and the endless punishments he must endure for his transgressions. Only problem is, the tab will never be fully paid and he'll forever be trapped in a time loop, repeating and experiencing all of his trauma and making the same mistakes over and over again. This has been a theme Derrickson and Boardman have explored in their subsequent screenplays and it adds a degree of respectability you wouldn’t expect from a Hellraiser film, let alone the fifth in the series.
Scott Derrickson’s career basically took two tries to get started. After impressing the Weinsteins by directing a single scene for the movie, he received the green light and Inferno was his debut feature. After directing The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which made way more money than I realized, his big step-up was supposed to be The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), a film that was doomed to fail thanks to the giant shadow left by Robert Wise’s classic, and which made money internationally but failed domestically, setting his career back and denying him A-list director status. Bouncing right back in a major way with Sinister (2012), a 3 million-dollar wonder that grossed 82 million, he had a minor stumble with Deliver Us From Evil (2014), receiving mixed reviews and just breaking even domestically. He hit pay dirt with Doctor Strange (2016), a movie which many felt could be the first Marvel failure but ended up, despite white-washed casting, introducing a now-popular character into the MCU successfully.
As a Hellraiser movie, Inferno is way too different and strays too far off the established playing field to really stand among the work that came before. As a story of crime and punishment about a self-destructive and selfish man who must pay for his sins, it excels. Derrickson and co. crafted a superb universe in which evil lurks around every corner and we must pay for our actions, sometimes at the ultimate price.