When the original Hellraiser (1987) was released it marked a completely different turn for horror films. Low-budget but high-concept, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser bucked the horror trend of masked, wise-cracking killers stalking horny teenagers that permeated the gene at that time. In spite of Barker’s unique vision the Hellraiser series – 10 films and counting to date – has been the middle-child of horror franchises, failing to achieve the fan service of the horror heavyweights like Friday the 13th, Halloween, or A Nightmare on Elm Street and less appreciated when compared to smaller series, like the Child’s Play films. Diehard fans of Pinhead and his Cenobites may disagree but the relative lack of love stems in large part to the poor quality and inconsistent narratives plaguing many of the films. With the latest Hellraiser film, Judgment, being recently released, it’s time to take stock of the franchise and rank the films.
Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
The ninth instalment of the franchise, and first film not featuring Doug Bradley as Pinhead, is absolutely terrible. I honestly cannot think of one redeeming quality possessed by this film. It’s as though the filmmaker decided to turn the film itself into its own Lament Configuration where actually being subjected to it was its own form of Hell. Avoid at all costs.
Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), Hellraiser: Deader (2005), Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
Very little distinguishes these films aside from the grammatically-challenged title of ‘Deader’ and the stunning feat of releasing not one, but two, poor Hellraiser films in one calendar year. None of these sequels approaches the masochistic levels of awful achieved by Revelations but they also never register as watchable either. Some of the worst Friday the 13th entries are still enjoyable as cheesy 1980s time capsules; the straight-to-video Hellraiser sequels by comparison are tiresome slags. Other reviewers have pointed out that many of these sequels were not even originally written as Hellraiser films; studio executives allegedly shoehorned Pinhead into these films to keep the rights to the Hellraiser brand. If that is indeed the case, it shows in films where Pinhead barely registers. If you’re a completist, you may feel compelled to watch these sequels but you’re not missing anything if you skip them.
Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)
Judgment isn’t a good film (see our recent review) but at least it feels like a Hellraiser film. There also seems to be some genuine effort to expand upon the mythology of the series and ingest some actual creative direction to possible future entries. While it still feels like two separate stories forced together there’s enough in Judgment to satisfy the more devoted Hellraiser fans.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
With its third film you can see the wheels beginning to fall off the franchise. The Hellraiser series is premised on a big concept and the lower budgets of horror films places a big limitation on that concept. The higher ranked films on this list got around the budget constraints by essentially limiting their scope and using the Cenobites sparingly. Hell on Earth puts Pinhead front and center, dangling its premise into camp-territory as it mimics the jokey tone of Freddy Krueger from some of the later Elm Street films. It’s a poor decision that strips the character of much of his mystique and dread. Moving the narrative into the larger world also exposes the limitations of the film’s budget; Hell on Earth’s special effects have not aged well. Despite these limitations, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth still feels like a Hellraiser film, largely maintaining the tone of its predecessors.
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)
Some fans will take issue with ranking Bloodline – yes, the one that sends Pinhead to outer space – ahead of Hell on Earth . Neither Parts III or IV are classics and my preference for Bloodline is its refusal to be a typical sequel; where Hell on Earth fell into some of the contrivances of horror sequels, Bloodline tries to do something different. With its story focusing on the Lament Configuration itself and three generations of the family responsible for its creation across three timelines, Bloodline tries to enrich the franchise’s mythology and its outer space element still feels like it fits the more idiosyncratic aspects of Hellraiser. It’s a clunky film with some pretty stilted acting and iffy effects but it still feels like the franchise it trying with this entry.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Less a sequel and more a continuation of the original film, Hellbound picks up immediately following the events of Hellraiser. First-time director Tony Randel, working from a script by Clive Barker, takes all the elements that worked from the original film and turns up the dial for the sequel. Pinhead and his Cenobites are featured more prominently this time around and the audience is plunged into their Hell dimension, a gloomy labyrinth that offers a uniquely grim vision. Claire Higgins’ evil stepmother, Julia, is thankfully resurrected for the sequel and, as in the original, she gives a wickedly scene-stealing performance. The film may be too dreadfully serious and bloody for some horror fans and the special effects reflect the film’s lower budget, but like the first Hellraiser, Hellbound has a lot of idiosyncratic charms and a sweeping score that makes the film feel bigger than its budget.
Hellraiser is deserving of being considered a horror classic, fitting a big concept into a small-budget film that was different from most other horror films being released at the time. More serious and with violence that wasn’t played for laughs, Hellraiser perfectly blended family dysfunction and drama with its supernatural mythology, introducing the world to Pinhead and his Cenobites. Its special effects are clearly dated but the film’s moody atmosphere, haunting score, and unique vision more than make up for it. The Hellraiser franchise may never escape from its straight-to-video (now streaming) Hell of its own creation, but the original film still stands as one of the better genre films.