I was admittedly disappointed when I realized Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth was a fairly literal title, and not the random assemblage of words I had hoped it was. Of course by saying that I have to concede that I’m officially guilty of weighing this series against my personal imagined version of a “good” Hellraiser sequel. At this point anything short of a Hellraiser sequel I direct is probably going to disappoint. I’d like to think I might stumble across an interesting variation on the franchise’s fabric. Which is the point where I have to say that the core fabric of Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth taken and weighed against it’s own intention is actually half decent.
Which might seem like a surprising statement given the fairly negative tone of my criticism up until this point. The thing that really sets Hell on Earth apart from the other Hellraiser movies is pretty simple. It’s also, naturally, intrinsically tied to the nature of the Cenobites as suggested by the first films. In Hellraiser the Cenobites aren’t these generic demons torturing the innocent, like they become in the first sequel, they’re mysterious beings. “Angels to some, demons to others.” They are beings that belong to some eldritch and indescribable sect. They’re manifestations of both pleasure and pain, a statement that has automatic sexual overtones. What makes Hell on Earth seem a little more like a natural extension of the first film is that it feels sexual. Which seems like faint praise, but the second film, and even the first film, to a degree, feels weirdly chaste. Both films make half-hearted attempts at depicting some of the pleasure part of the Cenobite’s dominion, but it always comes across a token, and a relatively minor part of the punished characters.
Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth is hardly an excellent film, in fact most of it is plain bad, but its sexual overtones seem to suggest a better formula for a Hellraiser film. It has other, major problems however. The core cast is made up of a passionate female reporter looking to make it big, a deplorable owner of a massive anything-goes-club, and the ex-girlfriend of the aforementioned club owner. These characters are goofy and broad, but not entirely bad ideas. The club owner finds a disturbing work of art in a small gallery and buys it. The art is immediately recognizable. It’s a rectangular pillar covered in spikes and macabre faces and the torso of everyone’s favourite Cenobite: Pinhead. This scene involves a truly laughable jump scare, but bringing the artsy remains of a Cenobite back to a sketchy club is a fun idea.
Things take a turn when the statue kills someone offscreen. The reporter is at the hospital at the time, frustrated by the complete lack of newsworthy events occurring (which seems like it’s paving the way for some black humour that never really happens). After her camera crew leaves to go do something important, a man with a collection of hooks hanging off of him is wheeled in on a gurney. There’s a goth-looking woman accompanying the gurney. It gets wheeled behind closed doors and the reporter (Joey) is denied the opportunity to look. Then the man explodes in a shower of suggested viscera.
After this Joey is convinced she’s seen something newsworthy and goes on a hunt to find out more information, specifically she wants to find out whom the woman in the hospital was. Her investigation takes her to this massive two-story club. The owner slyly dodges the questions, but eventually Joey finds out the pertinent info and manages to ask the girl, Terry, to contact her. The club owner, meanwhile, uses his status in the club to pick his favourite new girl and take her home with him. After their accidentally comical sex scene he sends the girl home in tears. At this point Pinhead starts talking to him. The talking statue seems capable of intense persuasion, as the club owner goes from “you’re evil demon” to “I’ll feed you my girls” remarkably fast. Pinhead’s murders look interesting at first, as he hooks his victims and drags them towards him, peeling and swallowing them. But rather than suggesting the last part of that equation, the film relies on terrible and jarring computer graphics, a choice I can’t condone.
Terry gets in touch with Joey, and Joey, recognizing Terry as the poor lost soul she is, takes her in. The two start living and investigating together. It’s kind of hilarious. All Terry was looking for was one nice person and now she’s a healthy person again. Because the movie totally doesn’t infantilize her and rob her of all her influence on the story at all. It’s worth noting at this point that Terry has the thing from the pillar that killed the man in the hospital – it’s the Lament Configuration. They decide not to solve the puzzle, which is shockingly smart for a character in a horror movie. The two find the gallery the pillar was from (it’s been closed since long before the pillar was purchased, spooooky) and uncover an interesting secret. All the art for sale in the gallery was purchased for next to nothing from kids and mental patients. The two use this information to work backwards and find the records the hospital in Hellraiser 2: Hellbound kept. Thus having uncovered the events of the first film they are armed with knowledge.
Nothing actually goes wrong until Terry hears a message on Joey’s answering machine offering the aspiring reporter a great job in a different town. Terry freaks out at the idea of being abandoned and immediately heads back to her ex-boyfriend. As far as decisions go, it’s a poor one, as she’s quickly almost fed to Pinhead. She manages to come out on top however, and feeds the club owner to Pinhead instead. The freed Pinhead descends upon the club like an angel of death, and kills everyone. When Joey arrives, there are corpses strewn everywhere. I can’t help but think that having all the bodies moan and groan and writhe like they were still alive and being tortured would’ve matched the Cenobite’s MO better, but whatever.
This is when the movie enters its “Hell on earth” stage, with Pinhead murdering people all over the city and Joey communing with the spirit of the human Pinhead once was. Joey and Pinhead’s human ghost plan to trap Pinhead back in Hell. It’s not an entirely abysmal climax, but it reduces the arcane and ominous Pinhead to a far more generic horror movie villain. He strides around stabbing people and blowing shit up, and it seems like an especially crude take on the grandly pontificating figure from the first film.
The problem is that putting Pinhead on Earth, and giving him such a vaguely destructive goal, renders the character bland. There’s nothing about his actions that are unique to the Cenobite. Here’s a good litmus test: if your villain’s destructive path could be recreated by a Decepticon, the monster probably isn’t that unique. The one interesting thing is that Pinhead makes a series of new Cenobites offscreen during the club massacre. In function they’re just a slightly varied physical threat, shooting slightly different things or causing explosions in slightly different ways. The new Cenobites are made out of literally every recognizable minor character in the film, and a few especially notable extras.
The design of the new Cenobites is serviceable at best. There’s nothing as egregious as the psychiatrist from Hellraiser 2: Hellbound, but the ideas are crude and unoriginal. They didn’t shoot for anything interesting. I’d like to imagine the design meeting as going something like this.
“Pinhead is cool, so lets make some new Cenobites using that as a template.”
“That’s a good idea, but lets not stay too close to that because we need to –“
“I guess that could be kind of neat, doesn’t really fit into the pleasure pain thing but -“
“Is that just a guy with CD in his head?”
“Can we -”
“And a guy with barbed wire on his face.”
“And he’d be called?”
“And a guy with a tap in his head.”
“Can we get away from the head motif?”
“…….Lets make Terry, like, a sexy Pinhead.”
“That actually wasn’t my problem with that one. So she’s just?”
“Dressed like a female Pinhead. And I guess she could just, have some skin pulled tight on her face?”
“Why do I continue to work with you?”
So while I liked the occasionally campy tone and more thematically appropriate content, the film overall is goofy and bland. Little of it stands out as good, just some parts that are entertainingly bad or decent ideas that were handled poorly. It totally jumps the rails when Pinhead returns, delivering a series of action scenes that completely fail at being frightening and instead manage to be boring. These atrocious scenes culminate in an inappropriately happy ending.