Long standing horror franchises make fascinating cinematic phenomenon, provided that a) it is your kind of poison because they certainly ain't for everybody and b) you can withstand many installments of below-average quality which unfortunately take up most of the catalog. Particularly amusing is how swiftly they tend to fall from grace, smash face-down into the gutter and still manage to churn out a dozen sequels.
Even from that standpoint, the Hellraiser series has got some hellish sights to show (get it?). Within the realm of the 9 movies, the franchise at various points has delved into sadomasochist body horror, slasher, space adventure, psycho thriller, occult journalism, video gaming and found footage, with its quality ranging from genre-defining genius to being downright unwatchable. It is nothing if not diverse!
Hellraiser: Inferno is known as the black sheep of the family, which is rather amazing given just how messed-up the family is. It is largely a psychological thriller/crime drama with some supernatural elements thrown into the midst. People often accuse this movie for being the point where Hellraiser as a series turns for the worse, which is simply not true. In fact, with the correct mindset, it may just be one of the best.
The movie revolves around a hedonistic, substance-abusing but capable detective named Joseph Thorne, who happens to be a total douchebag to his family, friends and everyone else. One day he's called to a murder scene and finds the good old Lament Configuration. Like a bright chap, he takes the puzzle box and decides to fumble with it. Soon after he starts seeing cenobite-themed hallucinations and weird stuff, as he relentlessly tires to save a kidnapped child from the mysterious murderous criminal mastermind known simply as the "Engineer", who is also hunting him down by systematically killing off people most important in his lives.
The first thing most people notice about this Hellraiser movie, is that it is nothing like a Hellraiser movie. Pinhead, despite once again featured on the cover, has maybe 3 minutes of screen time. Has it become a trademark for this character to front-cover a movie that isn't about him? The cenobites, including a faceless man, two featureless hookers and a crawling chatterer, while effectively designed, are few and far between. This is a massive change of pace after Hell On Earth and Bloodline bumped Pinhead to the center of the spotlight, as many fans had indeed wanted.
The most obvious reason is the script to Inferno was not meant for a Hellraiser project. If it feels like a totally separate movie with Pinhead, Lament Configuration and cenobites sneaked in here and there, that would be because that's exactly the case! The movie marks the fairwell to theatre releases for the franchise and the beginning of its abominable run of straight-to-video features, which is also a major reason people quickly point to this as the one that pushed the rock over the cliff.
If somehow you are able to look past the drastic shift in tone, the relative lack of series icons, and the fact that most straight-to-video movies are garbage, and that most horror sequels are garbage, you may be pleasantly surprised at what Hellraiser: Inferno has to offer.
Being the first feature-length directed by Scott Derrikson, who would later bring us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and, of course, Doctor Strange, there are various points in this trippy story where you just might understand why Disney chose him to helm the origin adventure of the Sorcerer Supreme. Under a meagre USD2 million budget, as opposed to the previously lowest 9.3 million for Bloodline, the movie looks surprisingly gorgeous. True, it could no longer afford elaborate sets in hell or nightmare-inducing effects that the franchise has made a name for, yet it is still effectively elegant and oh so eerie.
If there was one lone scene in particular that screamed efficiency, I would put my vote for the bar/casino scene, where our detective walks in a mid-sized gambling venue seemingly hosting a bunch of cowboys. Usually such scenes provide "off" moments for exposition or forwarding of the plot, but there was this unshakable feeling that something was wrong with this seemingly natural picture, until you realize that every single one of them is wearing the exact same hat, and while they are playing in threes and fours, there isn't any human interaction noticeable. Sometimes, it's the little things that get you.
The acting in this movie is also several notches above the norm. Of course, by "norm" I mean that of straight-to-video low budget horror sequels which is as low a norm as it gets, but the actors in Inferno don't seem to be aware of that. In fact, apart from one or two goofy reactions from our protagonist, everybody appeared to have taken this movie dead seriously.
Not that the material would prove very challenging for the actors, on that matter, because the truth is the characters basically just fall in their places with a role card strapped on their foreheads. The seductive hooker, the innocent wife and child, the abandoned parents, the loyal but betrayed partner, all neatly serve as the protagonist's objects of inner guilt, without so much as any pretense of even an attempt at subtlety.
Ironically, or perhaps even brilliantly, it works to the movie's favor. If at times the characters feel too well "designed", it's because that's exactly what's happening. That is the twist of the story: our detective has been trapped at his personal hell, destined to face his inner demons to eternity, ever since he opened the puzzle box very early in the film.
Perhaps calling it a twist is a stretch on the word, because audiences WILL figure out the true culprit before the big reveal, for the simple reason that the movie is called Hellraiser: Inferno, with Pinhead on the front cover! Take a wild guess, won't you? You can't spell it out any louder if you tried. It would be like having a transparent Bruce Willis on the cover of The Sixth Sense with the tagline: You don't always realize that you are already dead.
Hellraiser: Inferno is no masterpiece. It's predictable all the way, does not challenge or provoke any sensory barriers as the series is known for, and the "twist-ish" cautionary allegory feels rather in-your-face. The Hellraiser elements are sporadic and can frequently feel like an afterthought (as it really is), even though what few of it works pretty well.
However, the overall result is a movie much stronger than it has any right to be. It is a simple but effective story backed by strong direction, editing and set design plus some solid acting. The best thing about the plot is that it masks many of the movie's inner flaws, such as the lack of budget or Hellraiser elements, and manages to make them work for, instead of against, the film.
For a movie shoehorned by the studio into a series that has lost so much steam it's even pulled off from cinema releases, Inferno was only kept from becoming the utter trainwreck its sequels turned out to be through heartfelt efforts, and to think that it went beyond that and actually turned out to be "good", is definitely commendable.
Final rating: 6.5/10.
- There is a new Hellraiser movie on the way titled Judgement, and as much as I hate to admit it, I do harbor some high hopes for it, even though I have been burned more times than I care to count.
- I know the fingerprint is burned off on the cut off fingers of the lost child, but couldn't you guys at least run some DNA tests?
- Being trapped in a Groundhog Day of personal hell really isn't that bad, all things considered. I'd take that before eternal physical "pleasures" but that's just me.
- It's curious how out of the blue Pinhead is turned into a Jigsaw-type of judge, jury and executioner that punishes people for their sins. Last time we met him he was a bloodthirsty monster melting in a space lightball. Yeah, the less said about that the better.
- You can almost make a TV show out of this, where each episode revolves around a different person punished by his personal sins and then dragged to hell. Oh wait, never mind, there's already an anime for this called Hell Girl.
- How's this for a tagline? "In hell, everyone can hear your scream." "Like tears in the rain, a waste of sweet suffering." Somebody hire me already!