Hellraiser Could Have Been the Greatest Horror Franchise. What Went Wrong?

Clive Barker's Hellraiser ranks among the greatest horror classics of the 80s. Based on the novella by Barker called The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser tells a story of sadomasochistic entities known as the Cenobites. The Cenobites are "explorers of the furthest reaches of experience," who, if once they are summoned by the Lament Configuration, drag willing participants to Hell, where they will be tortured for eternity until they learn to enjoy it.

Hellraiser offered audiences a unique blend of horror and eroticism, but sort of fizzled out four films into its franchise. Yet it's lumbered on, experiencing a second life on the direct-to-video market. Unlike the Chucky franchise, which thrived in its low-budget, unleashed format with two of the best-received films in the series (Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky), Hellraiser's sequels have become increasingly uninspired and lazy. What happened to Hellraiser?

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The First Two Films

Hellraiser cenobites

Clive Barker's involvement in the franchise ended after the second film. Most fans agree that the first two films explore Barker's wild imagination to its fullest. The first two films lead one into the next, focusing on the same family as their lives are reshaped by their experiences with the Lament Configuration.

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In the first film, there are Frank and Larry, two brothers on very different paths. Larry's second wife, Julia, had a pre-marital affair with Frank. But Frank, unsatisfied, went off in search of new pleasures, which led him to Hell. But when Larry and Julia move into Frank's old house, and Larry accidentally bleeds on the very floor through which Frank plunged into Hell, Frank returns as a half-formed skeleton monster, in need of new flesh to restore himself to life. Julia helps, hoping she can have a second affair with Frank once he's restored, but when Larry's daughter from his first marriage, Kirsty, walks in on one of Frank's meals, she resolves to stop them.

In this entire plot synopsis, notice how the Cenobites barely played a factor in the whole story? That's because Barker never intended them to be the corner of the story. Barker focused on the human drama of the story. The Cenobites aren't monsters to be feared, but rather catalysts to move the story onward.

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Furthermore, the iconic Pinhead (credited as the Lead Cenobite in the credits), isn't a monster or villain as pop culture remembers him, but a reasonable figure who wishes to share his experiences with others while still being willing to negotiate. While the Cenobites are terrifying, they aren't evil, nor are they as destructive as Frank or Julia.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II follows through with this, with the second half exploring the world of the Cenobites in more imaginative depths. We enter Hell for the only time in the series, see its mechanisms and structure. The Cenobites are even more humanized, while humanity's monstrous depths are explored.

Tellingly, one of the highlights of the film is when Julia (who returns as a main antagonist here) and this sadistic Dr. Channard use a girl with a developmental disorder but a talent at puzzle-solving to solve the Lament Configuration to summon the Cenobites. Once Hell opens, Pinhead tells the others not to harm the girl since "It is not hands that call us; it is desire."

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So in short, the themes of the original two films are such: humanity causes harm through its selfishness, the Cenobites are lawful explorers of experience, and each film explores the mechanisms of Hell while still focusing on the human conflicts.

Then Hellraiser III Came Out

Clive Barker's involvement in the franchise ended after Hellbound, which you can tell immediately while watching this film. Gone is the classy horror film focused on family drama. The third film becomes a punk-rock slasher, complete with massive body counts that prioritize quantity over quality. Every kill in the prior film feels violent and brutal, but they are few and far between. In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Pinhead kills hundreds of people in a nightclub with chains.

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It is with the third film that the series becomes about Pinhead. Julia is nowhere to be seen, despite being the primary antagonist of the prior two films. We are introduced to new characters, and most of them are killed off in unremarkable fashions. Pinhead, once a reasonable arbiter of order, is a maniacal killer who just goes around slaughtering people. The film justifies this by arguing that this version of Pinhead is Pinhead's demonic side left unshackled, but none of this aligns with the character we've seen in the prior films, other than Pinhead's preference for monologues.

In the third and fourth films, Pinhead became the star.

The reason for this abrupt change can be seen by the film's production companies. The first two films were independent productions. After that, all future Hellraiser films were produced by Miramax, then run by the Weinsteins. And the Weinsteins "knew" what fans of the series wanted: more bodies, more Pinhead, and more violence.

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The fourth film, Hellraiser: Bloodline, was supposed to explore the origins of the Lament Configuration throughout history, aspiring to introduce and allude to the history of Hell on Earth throughout three time periods: the past, present, and future. The focus was to show how Hell over the years had changed, with Princess Angelique representing a chaotic Hell, while Pinhead represented, once again, Order.

None of this is in the final cut.

Miramax hated the cut. The Weinsteins wanted more Pinhead. To this end, the film was re-edited and reshot. Director Kevin Yagher was replaced with Joe Chappelle after production already wrapped. On the film, the film is credited to Alan Smithee -- the pseudonym given to directors who don't want to be associated with the final product.

The film was so poorly received by both fans and critics that the remaining films went straight to video.

Straight to Video

The majority of Hellraiser sequels after Bloodlines were based on recycled scripts for original films, just with cenobites added in. Gone was the mythology. Gone was the quality control. Miramax wanted a Hellraiser film out every few years so they could hold onto the rights, not because they cared what was put on the screen.

Scott Derrickson, who would go on to direct Sinister and Doctor Strange, produced Hellraiser: Inferno, the fifth film and best of the direct to video films. It also featured almost no Pinhead, barely being identifiable as a Hellraiser film at all.

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Still, at least it wasn't bad, like Hellraiser: Hellworld -- a film that turned the Lament Configuration into a browser game, starring Lance Henriksen and a young Henry Cavill. Hellworld must've disappointed Miramax since the next two Hellraiser films had an even lower budget. The ninth and tenth films in the series, Hellraiser: Revelations and Hellraiser: Judgement, proved so terrible that Doug Bradley, the actor who played Pinhead since the first film, the only connection the franchise had to its origins, refused to reprise his role.

In the meanwhile, multiple inventive pitches for remakes and sequels have been turned down, with the most notable being this pitch for a Hellraiser prequel film, Hellraiser: Origins. A reboot is supposedly currently in production with David S. Goyer.

When learning about Hellraiser: Revelations, Barker responded with this tweet.

That, in a nutshell, sums up Hellraiser: a franchise Barker created with love as a passion story, only for a greedy corporation to milk it until it became something more worthless than creative diarrhea.

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