Creature-Feature Conversations: Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
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 III: Hell on Earth (1992, directed by Anthony Hickox)
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
OG: When we were discussing what movie to watch for our next Creature-Feature Conversation, and I said that I wanted to do something with an honest-to-goodness monster in it, Jonathan and I both typed Hellraiser III at the same time. (Because we’re masochists who hate ourselves, and apparently also you, dear reader.) So obviously this was meant to be.
But before we get into the meat of this conversation, we need to talk about how 90s Hellraiser III is. How 90s is it? It stars the lady who played Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, much of the action takes place in a nightclub, it has KMFDM on the soundtrack, and there’s a Cenobite who kills people by throwing CDs at them. (As an aside, I happen to own the KMFDM album with this song on it, and according to the liner notes it was “whacked together in a day to meet the deadline for the Hellraiser III soundtrack,” and even they don’t know what En Esch is saying.)
JR: It also features the Cenobites spouting off catchphrases, which is very 80s/90s. The camera Cenobite literally says “That’s a wrap,” after his compatriot blows up some cops by throwing a drink mixer full of gasoline (???) at them and combusting it with his fire breath. These new Cenobites are like the worst rejects from a latter-number D&D Monster Manual, complete with bizarre, nonsensical special abilities and totally devoid of personality or menace save for your half-drunk DM’s inappropriate movie quotes inserted into the game for comic relief.
Welp, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning: when the familiar overwrought and epic (I say that lovingly) Hellraiser theme accompanies the image of a dark cityscape, you can almost fool yourself into thinking this is a film that has a shot at approaching the quality of the first two movies. You’d be mistaken. My first clue came when the reporter protagonist (the aforementioned Terry Farrell) witnesses a supernatural event involving a clubgoer who is cut up by chains. Then his head explodes. And the head explosion looks awful—like a black foam soccer ball shot apart by compressed air. Think of a movie with a head explosion in it, and I guarantee you that film did the effect better. There’s Scanners of course, that’s the classic—but even something like The Toxic Avenger pulls off the disintegration of skull and brain matter more effectively. I admire that they’re trying to shock the audience with a big effect early on, but it was silly, not shocking. It didn’t help that in one of the following shots we can see the corpse in the background, head still intact.
OG: Every time I watch Hellraiser III (which yes, I have somehow done multiple times now), I manage to forget that it’s directed by Anthony Hickox of Waxwork/Waxwork 2/Sundown fame. Now, I love all of those movies, but that seems like a weird filmography to jump to a major Hellraiser sequel from, which may help to explain Hellraiser III a little bit, though I’m hesitant to put this movie’s warts all on poor Hickox’s shoulders. (It might, however, provide a good clue as to the change not only in quality but style of special effects from the original and even the previous sequel; we’re in much cartoonier territory here.)
Fundamentally, Hellraiser III feels like the movie that’s trying to really turn Hellraiser into a franchise, to keep up with the Friday the 13ths and the Nightmare on Elm Streets. Hence the wise-cracking, made-for-action-figure-treatment (and not in the cool way) Cenobites, which Pinhead at least acknowledges are, “Mere shadows of my former troops.” (My scribbled note: “You got that right.”) Chalk part of that up to studio interference, I’m sure, but also to screenwriter Peter Atkins’ ongoing disambiguation of the Hellraiser mythos, begun in Hellraiser II, wherein he sort of plays August Derleth to Clive Barker’s Lovecraft; strip-mining the original’s numinosity to replace it with a much clearer cut delineation between “good” and “evil.”
But now I’m probably getting ahead of myself, so back to you…
JR: Hellraiser II is certainly different in terms of its narrative ambition than the first film. You’re right on that count. But it at least fits with the first film, feeling like a sequel that broadens the world’s scope and introduces us to plenty of great ideas. It might not be as good as the original, but it certainly feels like it belongs in the same series, and is a worthy watch for anyone who enjoyed Barker’s BDSM masterpiece: it’s got plenty of the series’ signature gore, great new expansions of the Cenobite and torture motif, and atmosphere galore. It’s the atmosphere and dark, smokey look of the originals that really draw me in, even when their budgets and ideas were stretched thin. Those movies looked menacing and gritty.
Conversely, III’s kills are poor imitations of earlier death scenes, most of the cinematography and shot composition is flat and uninteresting (with a few exceptions scattered throughout the film, such as the reporter’s arrival at the exterior of the post-massacre club; the candle lit room where Pinhead reveals himself; even the heavy-handed church scene doesn’t look bad, even if what happens there is eye-rollingly obvious), and, worst of all, Pinhead is overexposed and his dialogue and motivations are muddled shadows of his prior appearances.
OG: I think this film may also be the first time that anyone calls him Pinhead diegetically, though he is referred to that way in the credits of part 2. You’re absolutely right that Hellraiser II is much more of a piece with the first one than this installment, but I think that when you stack them all together you still get an almost perfect distillation of a franchise’s descent from visionary film to studio product in three easy steps, with this representing the smoking crater at the bottom of that particular arc.
Nonetheless, for all its (many) problems—such as Pinhead spitting out bullets? Seriously?—I always find things to like in Hellraiser III, from the street waif with a heart-of-maybe-not-quite-gold who manages to become a Cenobite just because she wants to have dreams, which is both prosaic and comic book-y at the same time, to the architecture ending, which gets called back in the at least marginally superior (to my memory) Bloodlines. Mostly, though, I just love how of its moment the movie is. There are so many unnecessary pyrotechnics, a theme song by Motorhead, and even a showdown in an abandoned construction site! But yeah, that’s me going out of my way to find things to enjoy in a film that I already knew was “the dumb Hellraiser sequel” before I even put it in my player.
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters, movies, and especially monster movies. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. From 2011 until 2016 he wrote a monthly column on vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press that has now been collected into Monsters from the Vault. You can visit him online at 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.