Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Written by Tony Randel
Directed by Clive Barker and Peter Atkins
The story of Film is littered with production companies & distributors who, at one point, seemed fairly dominant only to vanish overnight. New World Pictures is one of those companies. In 1987, they changed their new New World Entertainment to reflect their ownership of multiple media & product lines. They had purchased Marvel Comics, which dumped a load of potential film & television projects in their laps. New World produced the television series The Wonder Years and the soap opera Santa Barbara. They came close to purchasing Kenner and Mattel, both toy powerhouses of the decade. Ironically, this same drive to expand was followed by a significant financial slump and restructuring.
The 1980s was also the era of the horror franchise. Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street established the idea that a film studio could churn out a near-endless series of sequels predicated on the same basic formula. So it made sense that companies like New World would search for their own cash cow in the genre. In retrospect, Hellraiser feels like an improbable candidate for this. Clive Barker’s particular vision of horror is undeniably transgressive. That’s what makes it so seductive but also what would prohibit suburban teen moviegoers from lapping it up. Of course, there will always be those kids who were closeted and found something in Hellraiser’s envelope-pushing that spoke to a hidden part of themselves. That’s a good thing. But New World’s execution of the production is quite messy & lacking a cohesive element that brings it together.
Hellraiser II picks up just days after the events of the first film. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) has been institutionalized due to her explanations of what happened to her family and their home. Doctor Channard (Kenneth Cranham) emanates a lot of skepticism about Kirsty in public to the rest of the staff. In private, though, we learn he is a true believer, someone who has collected other puzzle boxes and is searching for the secret to their power. Kirsty’s story bolsters his investigations, and he chooses to go further than before. Sacrificing one of his own patients on the bloody mattress he found in the home, Channard resurrects Julia (Clare Higgins), who is now a skinless being changed by what she experienced on the other side.
Meanwhile, Kirsty meets Tiffany, a younger girl who is on the autism spectrum. Tiffany is great with puzzles and able to see patterns. Kirsty has visions of her dead father calling for help and thinks this prodigy can discover the Lament Configuration. This will open the door to Hell and let Kirsty rescue her dad from the cenobites. Once that door is open, things get wild, and the rest of the film spends its time exploring the labyrinth where the cenobites roam. Channard experiences a case of “be careful what you wish for,” and Kirsty has a final showdown with Julia.
I have tried to love these first two Hellraiser movies for a long time, but I think I’ve reached the point where I have to give up. I love Clive Barker’s written work; it’s fantastic. But the filmed adaptations of those works just can’t find a way to elevate themselves beyond the cheesiness. Are there moments of grand horror & spectacle? Oh, hell yes, this takes all the icky, gory sliminess of the first film and cranks it up higher. I have a lot of fun exploring the Gothic realm of Hell. There’s some tremendous cosmic Lovecraftian mystery here, too, with the unexplained rotating obelisk that hovers in the center of things. It’s a fantastic visual that never needs to be explained. Instead, it just sits there, looming over the characters, hinting at even deeper evil beyond what we see.
I give Hellraiser II credit for dropping any pretense, refusing to hold back, and just leaning into the BDSM, fountains of blood aesthetic that Barker really wanted. It’s a look and tone that you will not find in any other horror films of the era. If they do cosmic horror, they lean more into a straight Lovecraft pastiche, while Hellraiser has always felt highly unique. I’ve seen another creator or franchise that matches the specific aesthetics Barker, and his collaborators developed. This is an enjoyable fucked up movie that is made for people who really love horror. Still, the budget and its impact on the special effects stick out. Some moments have their dramatic tension hurt by the SFX crew doing their best on limited funds. It doesn’t have me clamoring for a CG-fest, but it’s also perfectly fine to point out when practical effects prove a distraction.
As an adult, I finally got to see some of the horror “classics” of the 1980s, and I found many of them to lack the scary sharp teeth I was led to believe they possessed as a child. Not so with Hellraiser. This really is a movie that makes sense for parents to lose their shit over. That doesn’t mean it will corrupt the youth, but it has so many grotesque images and set pieces that I completely understand why a Reagan-loving, church-attending member of the Moral Majority would shit their pants over it. Hellraiser never plays with the traditional Western Christian iconography of religion and presents a Hell that feels custom-made for the sun-bleached, spiritually-draining 1980s. I think the sequel is ultimately dumber than the first movie but makes up for it with its grand guignol.
What I really hate about it is the attempt to humanize Pinhead. Like a dog owner with a rolled-up newspaper, I want to slap the screenwriter on the hand and shout, “No!” The thing that kills a horror series for me is when the writers get it in their head that they need to expound on the character we’re meant to be afraid of. Backstories humanize and therefore make the monster less scary. There are, of course, many exceptions, like when the monster is meant to be a metaphor for an Other-ed member of society. But Pinhead is presented as an English imperialist, a member of the military stationed in some exotic locale when he encounters the puzzle box. His heroic act at the end of Hellraiser II always makes me roll my eyes. I don’t want him to save the day; that’s just plot convenience. It doesn’t entirely ruin the film for me, but I felt less interested in the story when I was reminded it was coming. The same thing goes for the puzzle box. No Hellraiser movie should explain it or where it came from. Just tease & hint, even presenting conflicting possible explanations just so it remains steeped in mystery.
You don’t need my recommendation if you’re a hardcore Hellraiser fan. However, I think it’s worth it if you liked the first one and haven’t seen the sequel. I would advise stopping there unless you really love what you see because the franchise certainly does not get better from this point forward. On an upcoming episode of the podcast, we’ll be reviewing the 2022 sequelboot, and I am crossing my fingers that it manages to capture some of the magic from these original two movies.