When I wrote about Clive Barker’s Hellraiser film for my Halloween Binge, I came to the conclusion that, as much as I like the film, it felt like the world implied by the film was more interesting than the actual film. It’s rather like a sketch of a bigger, better idea. The problem was that the final piece didn’t get commissioned. If that’s the case then Hellraiser 2: Hellbound is like some other, lesser artist was handed the sketch and told to finish it. At which point he held it upside down and said, “I’m pretty sure that’s a rabbit, right?”
If the best thing about Hellraiser was the world then that’s all you really need for a sequel, in my opinion. So of course Hellbound missteps right away with the return of the same cast and characters featured in the first film. The first film’s forgettable characters and bland actors were not the selling point, Pinhead and the Cenobites were. Those mysterious, instantly iconic, Godlike figures were what carried the film, and they could have carried the sequel without the crutch of returning human characters. The mysterious world implied by the Cenobites was gripping, so of course the film completely screws that up too.
The first scene in the film is the origin of Pinhead. Well, way to kill the mystery. Turns out Pinhead was just some human dude who was spontaneously Cenobited for no particular reason. This is a decidedly anticlimactic reveal. In fairness, this was based off something intended by Clive Barker, but the majority of the scene that actually explained why this particular guy was chosen was cut for budgetary reasons. The shots of Pinhead getting his pins is kind of interesting but, as a whole, this scene feels a little too much like meeting the whiny Anakin behind Darth Vader’s samurai-skull helmet. It also starts the first bothersome threads of confusion about the rules of the Cenobites and their worlds, but more on that later.
As far as reintroducing the human characters, and introducing the new human characters, the movie actually does alright. The basic premise is that the head of the asylum into which Kirsty was put, after the events of the first film, is run by a maniacal doctor obsessed with finding the Cenobites. So obsessed that one of his prized patients is a young girl he institutionalized after killing her parents, in order to exploit her magic puzzle solving abilities. The way the horror gets reintroduced is also clever. The doctor has the mattress Julia died on brought to him, then convinces a mentally ill man to mutilate himself on top of it. The blood revives Julia into a bloody zombie. The two quickly form a team, with the doctor bandaging Julia and Julia seducing the doctor. Kirsty finds out about this, but as she tries to escape the doctor uses Tiffany (the puzzle girl) to solve the puzzle box and summons the Cenobites, who cart everyone off to Hell.
Which is instantly where the movie faceplates dumbly to the ground. The thing about the Cenobites in the first film is that they’re clearly not demons. They have some sort of dominion over a realm of “pleasure and pain.” There’s a really distinct S&M vibe to the whole thing, especially with those limitations. The word Hell might be in the title of the film but the world clearly has nothing to do with that Christian vision of Hell. Even calling where the Cenobites live “Hell” feels instantly reductive. This is where the movie really muddles its vision, combining legitimately interesting visions of the Cenobites’ world with confusing and bland garbage scenes. It feels like a weird blend of bland generic Hell and actually interesting depiction of the mythos implied by the first film.
The actual landscape of Hell is legitimately very cool. The entire thing is portrayed as high stone maze walls, giving it a vaguely MC Escher like quality. Floating above the labyrinth is a massive entity named Leviathan whose appearance mirrors that of the Lament Configuration (the puzzle box). This is a striking and Lovecraftian idea that adds one of the few interesting wrinkles to the film’s fantasyland. It’s mysterious and calls into question the relationship between the Cenobites and the Lament Configuration and their ruler. It muddies the waters in a really interesting way. However it quickly becomes evident the movie has no rules designed.
But more on that later. From what I’ve described so far you might think Hellbound conjures up a legitimately interesting vision of Hell. You’d be mistaken. One of the first things we actually see in Hellbound is a fairly generic evil carnival. When Pinhead describes the Cenobites as “explorers… in the further regions of experience…demons to some, angels to others”, I personally did not immediately think of Pennywise the Clown. It’s not even a terribly made moment; it’s a little bit creepy. It just seems so out of place and random. It doesn’t seem like the sights Pinhead referred to.
So there’s a giant rotating geometric entity blaring out the Morse code for “God” and overseeing the pleasure and pain realm but also evil clowns and flashback rooms? It’s just muddy and vague. The closest to an original punishment that actually resembles the Cenobites MO might be the room Frank is kept in, where he’s haunted by writhing female wraiths he can never touch. That’s at least something.
Further evidence that the film’s universe is decidedly short on rules comes with the doctor’s plotline. This doctor who spends all his time trying to get into what I will begrudgingly call Hell. When he finally gets his wish he’s quickly spirited off by Julia and pushed into another puzzle-box type situation. When he emerges he’s a monstrous Cenobite creature with memories of who he was, free will, and way more power. It’s incredibly unclear just why he gets this treatment, and he spends the rest of the movie terrorizing Hell with powers Leviathan presumably gave him.
The design of the new Cenobite is…interesting. I have to commend them for reinterpreting Barker’s visuals in a bold way; the thing is it’s maybe a little bit too bold. Watching the transformation was something. I’ll enclose my mental reactions as I watched the film:
First the Doctor’s head is wrapped in a handful of wires, tightening around and constricting his face.
“So far so good, if maybe a little uninspired.”
Then a giant tentacle affixes itself to his head, lifts him up, and carries him around while his feet dangle in the air.
And then his fingertips burst open and little tentacles come out and they have little mouths and in the little mouths are knives and saws and flowers and needles and one time a human figure and –
“Just gonna have to stop you right there Hellbound. You know you’re a small budget film right? As far as effects go that’s biting off a lot when you have a tiny mouth. And did you do any tests at all before you settled into this design? Any experiments to get a sense of how this would look on film? Because the effect, well, it looks like a rejected Beetlejuice scene. It looks silly! The sight of dangling little legs is not threatening, it’s not creepy, it’s not visceral. It’s what happens when you pick up a toddler by the armpits. Not exactly the sort of thing likely to enter the horror canon. I have to admire you shooting for the fences, I do, but I feel like this was a preventable flaw in your film. Just trying the effect minus prosthetics might have made it immediately clear Doctor Dangling Legs wasn’t quite Pinhead levels of visually iconic.
Now you could write off Dangling Legs’ agenda, and his murdering of the other Cenobites as being the work of Leviathan, but that raises just as many questions. Either way there’s a confusing lack of internal logic. If Leviathan already has Pinhead, Butterball, The Chatterer, and The Female Cenobite why does he need another Cenobite? Does he not command the loyalty of the others? And if he does why does he need a puppet? And what makes the doctor a better candidate than any of the other recent people dragged into Hell? I want rules in my fictitious worlds, or I want you to be really good at hiding the lack of rules, like Lovecraft. This movie has neither of those characteristics.
I really wanted to like Hellbound. Hellraiser was great, but there was so much potential hinted at that a sequel could’ve explored with a bigger budget. This movie makes me wish they’d also relegated the Cenobites to the background instead of screwing up the depiction of their world thoroughly. It seems like a massive missed opportunity. Of course to my mind the ideal Hellraiser spin-off would barely have human characters and would instead just focus on the world. Also Wayne Barlowe would help prevent Dangly Legs type mistakes. Maybe one of the other sequels will actually do something interesting?