Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, directed by "Alan Smithee")
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
JR: After our last entry proved to be pretty popular (and, curiously, controversial, considering how many people actually like Hellraiser III), I figured, why not check out the sequel? I remember back in my early high school days purchasing this VHS from Media Play in their horror section, it being the only Hellraiser film they had that wasn’t $30, back when horror movies were hard to come by and my knowledge of the form was woefully limited to what I could afford to purchase or what my cousins happened to record on HBO and Showtime off satellite TV. After seeing the Scream movies I just knew I had to be literate in horror cinema, but my options were pretty limited. I very easily could have purchased another movie—any horror movie, really—but something about the simple box art (Pinhead in profile, if I remember correctly) and premise caught my attention, especially considering my interest in the series spurred on by my enjoyment of the censored-for-TV cuts aired during AMC’s Monsterfest.
Had I grabbed another film, I would have missed out—Hellraiser: Bloodline is a fine little gore movie, with plenty of character and yes-it’s-silly set pieces that make it a squirm-inducing good time. Sure, it’s overwrought and ridiculous at times, with sequences that feel out of place or even intentionally comical, but the Alan Smithee-ing of the director’s credit is clearly the result of someone being a touch too sensitive about studio interference in a forgotten horror movie sequel. This is a competent horror movie that both acknowledges the abortion that was the third entry but attempts to guide the series toward a satisfying conclusion and give Pinhead a proper send-off. I really dug it back then, and I enjoyed it quite a bit now. Before we get into the negatives of the film—and, oh boy, are there some negatives—I just want to say that I’m a fan, unironically. In a better world, the following entries in the franchise would have been on par with Hellraiser 4.
OG: Yeah, I remembered liking this one better than part 3, and I still mostly do, even if its attempts at further codifying the narrative actually beg more questions than they answer, and it shares Hell On Earth’s unfortunate penchant for pyrotechnics. (Who ever looked at the Hellraiser series and thought, “You know what this needs? More explosions.”) While I still don’t feel like the origins of the Cenobites and Lemarchand’s box needed more exposition, the “box of eternal light” idea is certainly more satisfying than anything Hellraiser III added to the mythos.
I always forget that this actually beat Event Horizon to the Hellraiser in Spaaaaaace! punch by a year. This was, to be fair, the natural progression of 90s horror franchises. After a few installments, they would pretty inevitably go to the big city and then to outer space or the Wild West. (Come to think of it, that’s the joke they should have used in Scream 4, instead of psychic powers.)
JR: So we get to follow the origin story of the puzzle box and learn a bit more about Hell and the Cenobites, which doesn’t quite vibe with the first three movies, but what differences there are are passable. This movie could even stand on its own, I think, given the scope of the narrative. Basically we’re hopping through time, following a line of “toymakers” who are tied both to the creation and (as they hope) destruction of the iconic puzzle box. Despite a threadbare budget, the strongest scenes in the film take place in what I assume is pre-revolutionary France, featuring a vampy occultist and grisly, bloody-soaked rituals. The modern-day New York City scenes seem to be the heart of the film, but are the least interesting, with moments of rubber-monster excess livening things up. (I really liked the demon doggo’s design: an unabashedly practical puppet that could easily have been compromised by burgeoning CGI.) The space station framing narrative is uneven—the space marines getting picked off by the Cenobites sequence manages to be both uninteresting and absurdly out of sync with the rest of the movie—but there’s a few scenes of smoky, inky darkness and just enough of the cinematographer’s ambition shining through to keep them from being on a, say, Jason X- or Leprachaun 4-level of cheese. Even the exterior shots of the space station look pretty decent on a low-resolution transfer.
OG: I think my favorite bits of the movie actually came in the opening portion of the space station sequence, with some of the establishing shots, and the Terminator-style puzzle box solving robot, though I’m not sure why that puzzle box sequence is inexplicably done with CG when the later ones aren’t. (Maybe they had trouble with animatronic robot hands?) Also, the recurring theme of Pinhead being tricked by technology seemed a bit hokey.
I’d definitely agree with you that the modern day sequences are where the film is weakest, while they also seem to dominate its running time. That is where we get the most shots of Pinhead’s puppy, though, which I liked a lot when I was younger, and still kinda like now. I feel like there’s a similar critter in one of the Wishmaster movies, maybe? Is that right?
On social media, you had claimed that this was Doug Bradley’s best performance as Pinhead. Chances are you were going to get back to that yourself here, but I wanted to bring it up, because I would actually tend to agree with you. While the writing in Bloodline isn’t up to the standard of the first or probably even second film, Bradley has really come into his own in the role here, and delivers the occasionally goofy lines that they put in his mouth with a grandeur that makes them iconic, rather than just sounding emo. (Something that he has always brought to the Pinhead character, but he really outdoes himself this time.) Who else can deliver a line like, “I am pain,” and have it sound anything but laughable?
JR: I stand by that statement, and I think your final comment sums up how I feel about the movie in general. It should be laughable (“S&M Demons Part 4: IN SPACE”), but the film works as a low-budget mid-90s creature-feature. There’s also a pair of good performances here from Bruce Ramsey and Valentina Vargas to carry the load when Bradley isn’t on screen. Yes, the modern-day family drama drags, there’s a chubby-90s-kid-in-peril thing going on that makes the film feel silly in parts, several of the sequences are disjointed and don’t work at all, but… Ultimately I recommend this movie. It’s not high art or anything, but there’s enough craftsmanship and good performances to make it entertaining and yes, even re-watchable.
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters and the author of a number of spooky books. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and other venues, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. You can find him online at http://orringrey.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.