The world of direct-to-video horror sequels is an ugly wasteland of cynicism, broken careers, creative bankruptcy, diminishing returns and slashed budgets. You could be forgiven for calling it a hateful, pitiless carny con game. Real-life-Frank/disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob founded Dimension Films in the early 90s seemingly for the sole purpose of acquiring the rights to neglected horror franchises and running them into the ground for a quick buck. If Children of the Corn doesn’t carry a ton of weight in the horror community and its endless sequels don’t exactly run the risk of shitting on a sacred legacy, Hellraiser is another animal entirely. The original film by Clive Barker remains a singular creation that taps into something horror fans crave: A dark, mysterious, elaborate mythos mixed with generous helpings of sex, gore and violence. Instantly iconic upon release, it was followed up quickly by an almost equally beloved sequel directed by Tony Randel. At that point the Weinsteins swooped in like carrion birds and attempted to revamp the series by placing the focus on its most identifiable character, Pinhead. Waxwork director Anthony Hickox got the call to direct Dimension’s first feature, Hellraiser III, and he made a game attempt at Freddy Krueger-izing Pinhead, but the results are a goofy fucking mess. A fun goofy fucking mess, to be sure, but far removed from the first two entries’ tone and intentions.
One key player Hickox brought on board for the project was young British effects artist Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a former collaborator on Waxwork II. Tunnicliffe has been with the Hellraiser franchise ever since. Yes, from the Pinhead-in-space debacle Bloodline—which earned itself the dreaded Alan Smithee tag thanks to studio tinkering—to the direct-to-video wilderness of Scott Dickerson’s sub-Lynchian Inferno and Rick Bota’s troika of half-baked mindfuckery Hellseeker, Deader, and Hellworld, Tunnicliffe has remained loyal to the series, and always comes through with solid and interesting effects work despite whatever else is going on in the picture.
For years and years now, the idea of a theatrically released, big budget Hellraiser reboot has been kicked around and has at times reached various stages of almost happening. In 2011, as plans for the reboot dragged, someone at Dimension realized they were at risk of losing the rights to the property if they didn’t poop out a sequel with the quickness. As in an entire start-to-finish production had to happen in a matter of weeks. Tunnicliffe came to the rescue with an original script and Mirrors 2 director Victor Garcia was brought on board and given a paltry budget of $350,000 to cobble together something resembling a movie. The resulting film, Hellraiser: Revelations, was screened in a theater once and released on home video via the Dimension Extreme label. It’s almost universally considered the drizzling shits; a cynical ashcan copy with virtually no redeeming features. It has an absolutely abysmal IMDB rating (2.7 as of this writing) and Clive Barker himself famously scoffed at the “From the Mind of Clive Barker” tagline by saying this shit didn’t even come from his bunghole. But I think it deserves a second look. Don’t get me wrong, one has to give it massive leeway by taking into consideration the circumstances in which it was made, but there are things to enjoy unironically.
BUT FIRST, let’s go over the bad:
Pinhead Sucks In This
Doug Bradley claims he read the script, asked for another draft and was told there wasn’t time for that kind of luxury, so he declined to participate. I translate that explanation as, “they didn’t have the money to pay me.” This is a guy who accepted a starring role in Wrong Turn 5, which if you’re not keeping track is one of the Declan O’Brien ones where the murderous inbred hillbillies are running around looking like the goddamn Three Stooges in low grade Spirit Halloween masks. This dude does not turn down roles. Forced to punt, the studio cast bit character actor Stephan Smith Collins, and Jesus the fuck Christ does he look like a nerd at a con cosplaying Pinhead. Also he looks constipated on the cover. Odd choice. Veteran voiceover actor Fred Tatasciore dubbed him, failing miserably at trying to replicate Bradley’s definitive interpretation of the role. I honestly feel a little bad for talking shit about these guys considering they had to take over one of the most iconic and recognizable roles in horror history on a moment’s notice. They tried, man.
It’s So Cheap Looking
Although it takes itself quite seriously, the entire enterprise looks and feels so slapdash and cheap that it teeters just on the edge of being completely laughable for its entirety. Some shots look straight out of a daytime soap. A dark club scene has no incidental background music, lending it a surreal, stifling awkwardness. The mysterious derelict character who hands the puzzle box off to our hapless protagonists has a glued-on dollar store beard. Most of the action takes place in a boring upper-middle-class home. In short, it was a rushed, low budget production and it shows.
The Protagonists Are Annoying
Nico and Steven are basically a couple of frat bros who decide to drive to Mexico and engage in various types of debauchery not readily available in the States. Call it a tad xenophobic if you must, but it’s honestly not the worst idea for setting up your classic Frank-template character. One of the two bros, Nico, feels the need to travel afield in search of ways to satiate his violent, carnal lusts, and even then he finds what’s on offer lacking. He’s got to go full psychopath, and that leads him to the box. But I digress. The point is, a good idea is stymied here by the fact that these two fools play up the annoying douchebro stereotypes so much that you find them grating, instead of, like, you know, engaging and/or sympathetic.
BUT THERE’S SOME GOOD STUFF TOO!
It Stays True to the Conceit of the Original
Every Hellraiser has a Frank; a depraved sybarite in search of pleasures of the flesh that extend well beyond the cravings of most normal human beings. His or her unquenchable thirst eventually leads them to the puzzle box and the Cenobites. But this film also has a Julia, thus reviving as a bromance one of the great relationships in all of horror. Once Nico’s stuck in Cenobite-torture land, his best bud Steven starts murdering hookers in an attempt at bringing him back to real life. Things predictably go awry. You could make the criticism that Tunnicliffe is lazily revisiting plot points from the original, but I view it as a small attempt at returning the franchise to its roots and reinterpreting a dynamic that was sorely missed. A successful sequel has to strike a balance somewhere between slavishly copying its predecessors and taking off in a wildly different direction. I think the filmmakers find that sweet spot here.
The Practical Gore and Makeup Effects Are Pretty Good
I’ve seen Tunnicliffe’s name pop up as effects artist in everything from The Collector to last year’s Trick. Like Savini, he’s a dependable hand at whatever he’s tasked with, whether it’s grisly cuts and various wounds or full-on creature effects. Given the quick turnaround and comparatively small scope of Revelations he turns in some damn solid practical gore and cenobite makeup, including an interesting-looking Pinhead-in-training design.
It’s Sufficiently Exploitative
It wouldn’t be a proper Hellraiser without its fair share of sex and gore, and Revelations at least makes an attempt at living up to its namesake in that regard. There’s some sex, nudity, violence, blood, viscera and combinations of all of the above. It may sound like faint praise, but so much modern horror lacks basic exploitation elements that I think it’s worth noting when a film so derided at least tries to deliver the goods.
This is not meant to be a backhanded compliment. Running time is so key with low budget horror, and it’s always a bummer when a sloppily edited movie surpasses the 90-minute mark or something. At a brisk 75 minutes, Revelations gets in and gets out without overstaying its welcome. Its brevity may have something to do with time and budgetary constraints, but whatever the case, it works.
In part 2, we’ll delve into 2018’s Hellraiser: Judgment . . .