When part three of the Hellraiser series was released in the early 1990s, audiences of the day were presented with a work that had significantly deviated from its predecessors. Mark Fraser revisits a film which ends up being more about cinematic bluster than claustrophobic suspense.
If nothing else Anthony Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth provides the most stupidly spectacular finale of the horror franchise’s initial trilogy. While it doesn’t exactly save the film’s grace, this extended off-the-wall moment provides some small consolation to those who have little or no sympathy for torture cinema.
The whole sequence starts when the evil Cenobite Pinhead (again played by Doug Bradley) cleverly lures novice TV reporter Joanne “Joey” Summerskill (Terry Farrell) to a nightclub called The Boiler Room so he can retrieve the Lament Configuration puzzle box – which could send him back to the depths of Hades if in the right hands – from the young journalist.
Before arriving, Joey is warned by the late Captain Elliott Spencer (Bradley again) that his evil twin (Pinhead) will use any form of sneaky trickery to get the contraption. Predictably, this advice turns out to be spot on. As expected, when Summerskill arrives at the club the head Cenobite – who has just slaughtered all of the patrons in a number of cruelly imaginative ways during a scene that is quite reminiscent of the prom night carnage in Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror opus Carrie – is waiting for her.
Instead of using his flesh-piercing chains to wring the puzzle box from Joey’s tight grip, however, the intimidating Pinhead (who tells the poor woman that he’ll enjoy making her bleed and “I’ll enjoy making you enjoy it”) ends up chasing her through the streets with the help of some newly-acquired comrades. At this point it seems their mission is not so much to make the woman bleed, but to eradicate her from the face of the planet completely.
What ensues is a hilarious (albeit somewhat mystifying) mix of action and horror as shop fronts get blown up, fire hydrants burst, power lines are brought down, innocent bystanders get needlessly slaughtered and a police squad gets wiped out. Even a hapless priest (Clayton Hill) literally gets the third degree when he discovers his faith is no match for the supernatural powers of the monstrous demon.
At the end of the day it is a little difficult to determine if director Hickox and his writer Peter Atkins meant all of this to be as ridiculously funny as it is. Certainly there are enough moments of pure cheese throughout the film to suggest they were trying to make a grotesque comedy rather than recreate the grim mood that permeated the first two Hellraiser installments (1987’s Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which came out the following year).
For a start, the whole thing looks kind of comically cheap. In the movie’s opening scene, for instance, the fake Manhattan night skyline appears to have been recycled from the set of a 1930s MGM musical, while the view from Joey’s apartment is obviously as phony as the one from Gordon Gekko’s office in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. To legitimise the movie’s New York location, the director throws in a couple of shots that include the now-gone Twin Towers. Yet even this gimmick is ultimately undermined by the final showdown when the night time action looks like it’s taking place within the open streets of downtown Los Angeles – not on Broadway or in Times Square.
Meanwhile, in the church where Joey tries to take refuge during the big chase scene, the traditional pews have been replaced by rows of single wooden chairs. Fortunately none of them seem to be damaged by the unimaginatively-designed exploding stain glass windows as the formidable Pinhead makes his dramatic entrance.
Then there’s a couple of silly subplots involving Joey’s dead father (Peter G. Boynton), who was left to die in Vietnam by the US Army, and Captain Spencer, the man that started the whole mess by opening the literal Pandora’s Box while serving in the trenches of World War I (a moment shown near the start of Hellbound: Hellraiser II). When he is brought into this third chapter, Spencer is trapped in a parallel universe waiting for the chance to bring his evil nemeses down. Exactly how Pinhead’s good side survived the transformation is never properly explained – his presence is merely a dramatic convenience.
Finally the story is full of characters that, in the most part, are either completely reprehensible (like Kevin Bernhardt’s JP Monroe, the nightclub owner who smokes while he’s having wild sex and predictably ends up as a Cenobite after inadvertently bringing Pinhead back to life), totally stupid (in this case the award goes to Paula Marshall as the bimbo Terri, who helps Joey during the initial part of her investigation before also falling foul of the evil one), completely expendable (such as Daniel “Doc” Fisher [Ken Carpenter], Joey’s sympathetic cameraman who also gets it during the Boiler Room slaughter) or simply unappealing (Farrell isn’t exactly what one would call an interesting heroine). To add salt to this wound, most of the movie’s perfunctory dialogue is either annoyingly banal or just plain laughable.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth was the first of the Pinhead-led series to be made in the US after its rights were bought by Miramax, the hit and miss studio run by the Weinstein Brothers (the third installment was produced by the company’s exploitation division Dimension, which churned out movies like Alex Proyas’ The Crow and Wes Craven’s Scream and was primarily under the control of brother Bob).
Given this, it’s easy to explain just about everything that is seen on screen – from the simplistic storyline and climatic histrionics to the explosions and general mayhem. In effect, the franchise was Hollywoodised, leaving behind the strange sense of claustrophobia that dominated the first two Hellraiser episodes and, instead, embracing a bigger budget and splashier special effects.
Whether or not this was a good thing remains a moot point. As mentioned earlier, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is kind of funny, despite the fact some of the humour seems unintentional. Certainly it is not as mean-spirited as parts one and two of the series, even if it does have its fair share of nasty flesh piercing and gruesome deaths. The scene of mass destruction in The Boiler Room is a good case in point, with compact discs, billiard cues and pool balls being used as murder weapons in fairly imaginatively ways.
While the forces of Hollywood may not have completely saved this franchise after the dire Hellbound: Hellraiser II, it certainly helped keep it a little more interesting than it arguably deserved to be.
Words by Mark Fraser
Directed by: Anthony Hickox
Written by: Peter Atkins, Tony Randel
Starring: Doug Bradley, Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall, Kevin Bernhardt
Released: 1992 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB / More reviews: Latest | Archive
Arrow Video’s limited edition Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box featuring Clive Barker’s iconic and seminal horror classic Hellraiser and two sequels is available now
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