Ginger Nuts of Horror
Welcome to Devil’s Advocate, an occasional column where I kick over one or more of the sacred urns of horror and sift through the ashes to see what’s what. Note that what follows, whilst undoubtedly brilliantly and eruditely argued, is nonetheless an OPINION, and more specifically MY opinion. If you disagree, please do write in. All I ask is that you engage in the spirit of fun which is intended, and remember that my job, as advocate, is to make the strongest possible argument for my position. In other words – it’s nothing personal. It’s just debate.
Also, be aware the following will assume a near fanatical familiarity with the text – or put another way, HERE BE SPOILERS. Go watch the damn films first. Thanks
My relationship with these two movies is interesting. I saw Hellbound first. Except that’s not quite right, either. More accurately, I saw the first 30-40 minutes or so first, before being kicked out of my friend ‘Bev’s’ house because it was tea time. It would be many more months before I would see the entire movie. In fact, my memory is that I saw both movies back to back, in the early hours of the day after my 15th birthday party, as part of a truly epic video night
Here’s the thing though; even the first hour was enough to convince me that it was the better film, and the years have done nothing to dull that conviction. This is not meant as an attack on Hellraiser, exactly, because that’s a pretty damn good horror movie by any reasonable measure. It’s just that I think this is one of those very rare occasions (The Empire Strikes Back is pretty much the only other example that immediately comes to mind) where the sequel manages to build so well on the foundations laid by the first movie that they actually surpass it in terms of storytelling.
So here it is. 8 reasons why Hellbound is a better move than Hellraiser.
1. It’s a direct sequel. The events in this movie take place mere hours after the last one finished. Kirsty is in a mental institution, and the cops are still in the discovery phase in the burned out remains of the house where the first film took place. Unlike many horror movie sequels, there’s almost no retconning of the first film, and almost all of the original cast return. This means the film is free to build on the foundations laid by the first movie, to construct upon that existing mythos a more expanded vision, filling in some gaps and answering more questions. This isn’t fair, of course – Hellraiser had to set the ground rules, establish the characters, introduce the mythos, all of which it does superbly well. But this isn’t about fairness, it’s about better, and Hellbound engages in the masterstroke of continuing directly from the events of the last movie, allowing it to leapfrog forwards. It’s a brilliant decision that recognises the enormous strengths of the first movie, and allows the sequel to surpass it, mainly by hitting the ground at a full tilt sprint. Consequently...
2. The pacing is better. In my extended reflection on the original movie, I compliment the film on its economy of storytelling. I stand by that observation, but Hellraiser II takes that ball and runs it all the way to the end zone. Example: The entire plot of the first film is summarised in less than five minutes of narrated flashback, with almost no retconning taking place. Sure, if you’re watching the films back to back it still drags a little, but for everyone else, it’s delightfully efficient. Similarly, Dr. Chanard’s aloof villainy is revealed incredibly quickly, and via actions rather than words, and Julia’s return again fast forwards the regeneration process (which in the case of the first movie took most of the running time). It makes sense in terms of narrative - Julia knows what needs to be done, and her accomplice is far more willing to help, has easier access to fresh meat –but the effect is that the movie feels to be moving far quicker, with Julia in fully re-skinned glory and the gates of hell opening up around the 40 minute mark. Which brings us to...
3. Julia is a better villain than Frank. Like, way better. And again, this builds on the first movie in a delightful way. In Hellriaser, Julia gradually transitions from a conflicted accomplice to a willing one, but her naivety is still troubling. She’s willing to kill for her man, but fails to see the screamingly obvious fact that he’s amoral and driven exclusively by his own base desires. That this is ultimately her undoing is predictable in a Greek tragedy kind of way – so far, so classic, in other words. But here in part II we get something far more interesting – Julia comes back from Hell, and this time, she’s the predator. She understands the rules of the game, far better than her supposed liberator Dr. Channard, and his cold indifference to suffering, even coupled with a strong intellect, is absolutely no match for her new found understanding of human nature. Her growth has been hard earned, and her new awareness seems to shine from her. It’s a transcendent performance from Claire Higgins, who clearly revels in the opportunity to empower Julia, to have her ascend from blind victim to evil Queen, and the moment when she instructs Kirsty to ‘take your best shot, Snow White’ is a genuine cheer-out-loud moment. Similarly, her revenge on Frank and the reveal of her true purpose with Dr. Channard give full personification of the consequences of a woman scorned. She is glorious.
4. More pinhead. And more Cenobites. They arrive earlier, as part of the accelerated pacing, and they have more to do. And they are still magnificent. The scene where they have an extended conversation with Kirsty is wonderfully played by all concerned, and the moment when Kirsty turns to leave and the bloody flesh hook on a chain shoots out to block her path is electric. You’re here now, Kirsty, on their home turf, with their rules. And any time they want you... Pinhead’s closing invitation to explore Hell (“Taste our pleasures. We have eternity to know your flesh...”) is utterly chilling, and Kirsty’s doom seems assured. They are more overtly sadistic this time around, it seems – in the first movie, we’ve rooting for them to show by the end, because we want Frank to pay, but here, with no ‘out’ for the leads, they are revealed as the creatures of menace they always were – terrifying, remorseless, with a cold delight in horrific suffering. Elemental. We fear them, as we should. And then, of course, the film pulls a spectacular twist in the closing act, and we find ourselves yet again rooting for Pinhead...
5. The conversion of Dr. Channard. He’s a great character anyway – the amoral brain surgeon, detached observer of suffering, with a secret basement reminiscent of Freddie’s boiler room where he keeps the most disturbed of his patients in Victorian conditions of restraint and captivity. The echoing screams that reverberate down the halls, punctured by bursts of steam and dripping pipes, is powerfully disturbing stuff, and invite comparisons to Hell. The moment when he hands a disturbed patient who is convinced his flesh is covered in bugs and maggots a straight razor to scratch with is as powerfully horrific as it sounds, and his cold curiosity as he observes the carnage that follows is a big part of why.
So Channard is already horrifyingly evil, and when Julia walks him back into some kind of flesh-trap box that cheese-wires his face as he descends into the lower levels of Hell, we feel as though justice has been done. The moment he returns, blue faced, snakes with scalpels for tongues sprouting from his palms, and we realise the truth – that he has not been called to Hell for punishment, but to become a Cenobite – is one of those brilliant twists that is simultaneously shocking and makes perfect sense. The clues were all there, but we never put it together. Hell wanted Channard, and sent Julia out to get him.
6. Hell’s Civil War. Following from the last two points, this twist is again really exciting, and manages to make us sympathetic to Pinhead again, without compromising one iota of his menace or stature as a creature of sadistic evil. Because Channard as Cenobite is brutal on a level we’ve not yet seen, and his grotesque laughter as he indifferently eviscerates the patients of the hospital (Hell apparently coming to earth well in advance of the third movie) feel at odds with the cold, mannered approach of Pinhead and his crew. It feels like the rules are being subverted. Pinhead and crew, however twisted, have a code, principles. Rules. Channard seems to be ruled entirely by sadistic impulse. The impossible is achieved again. We’re rooting for Pinhead. Again.
7. Ick factor to 11. Hellraiser is, by any reasonable standard, a fairly gruesome film in parts. Hellbound tops it in every conceivable way, without descending into Evil Dead II parody levels. The aforementioned scene with the mental patient and the straight razor remains one of the all-time most disturbing moments of sustained body horror you’re likely to see, at least outside of a Cronenberg movie. That it immediately follows with a bloody Julia bursting out of the mattress, flesh without skin, an extended fight between the two, compounds horror with horror in a way likely to turn all but the strongest stomachs. And the carnage continues from there, with immolations, eviscerations (the aftermath of Julia’s ‘reskinning’ a particular highlight in this regard), and an entire wing of the hospital turned into a charnel house. Some of the imagery within Hell invoke the psychedelic horror of Tommy, with foetal babies sewing their lips together and writhing spectral female figures drenched in blood. It’s horrific, but worse it’s knowingly horrific, not just a ‘buckets-of-blood’ approach but an intelligent attempt to disturb with extreme imagery. It works.
8. Strong women. I’ve touched on this before, but where the first movie contained strong women characters in Julia and Kirsty, it was still a very male driven story, with Frank the powerful charismatic antagonist and Pinhead as the darkest white knight in the history of cinema. Here though, the women are even stronger – Julia has become a recruitment agent for Hell, has embraced her own dark nature and utterly surpassed Frank and his petty desires (confirmed in a wonderful revenge scene in Hell itself, where Julia manipulates Frank in the crudest way, before leaving him to burn, with a smile on her face). Kirsty has similarly grown. Still afraid, terrified even, she nevertheless is prepared to enter Hell to try and save her father. Yes, that turns out to be another one of Frank’s manipulations, but the fact remains that her motivation is good and her chosen course of action courageous in the extreme. Rarely has the role of lone female survivor been as well realised as in this film. Add in Tiffany the mute puzzle solver, whose role in saving Kirsty is absolutely pivotal, and who manages to transcend her suffering at the hands of Dr. Channard to save the day, and we have a film that, if not straightforwardly feminist (Barker’s source material will always make that a tricky claim to nail, if only because it is, in the best possible sense, so damn messy) is at least head and shoulders above its peers in terms of the representations of women in 80’s horror. Barbie Wilde’s transfixing performance as the female Cenobite (her wonderful delivery of the line “Perhaps you’re teasing us. Are you teasing us, Kirsty?” manages to give Doug Bradley a run for his money in the detached and haughty amusement stakes, and really, I don’t have a higher compliment than that) tip the scales yet further. And politics entirely aside, it just makes for a better story, that’s all.
So there you have it. Again, none of this is to denigrate Hellraiser – elsewhere on this site, I spend a shade under three thousand words singing its praises. And Hellbound isn’t perfect – some of the effects haven’t aged particularly gracefully, the civil war in Hell story is underdeveloped, and it’s a real shame that a more satisfying closing image couldn’t be found – one that would fuel a more exciting and coherent part 3 than the one we got. And yes, okay, the death of Julia is kind of anti-climactic and muddled. But even in those moments when the reach of Hellbound slightly exceeds its grasp, it’s impossible not to admire the sheer energy and imagination that went into crafting this sensational follow up. The film makers built on solid foundations, honoured the original movie, and in doing so achieved that rarest of Hollywood tricks: A sequel that’s better than the original.