Just Don't Touch the Box!
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
When it comes to iconic characters in slasher films, there's an easy top five that anyone would automatically list: Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Chucky, and Pinhead. One person's list may swap out one or two of those characters but I can guarantee those five will be near the top of most lists, and would take the top slots in aggregate. We lump the Hellraiser films in among slashers because, among the various genres of horror, we don't really have a better place to put these works. The adventures of Pinhead and Friends isn't really slasher material -- people die, but by their own devising -- but the characters are too iconic to just be called "movie monsters". They sit in a weird place between slasher and monster.
I thought on this a lot while watching Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, not just because this was another tired entry in the franchise that struggled to hold my attention, but also because the film (and the franchise) is absolutely beholden to Pinhead at this point. In the previous film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Pinhead and his Deadite cohorts were cleansed of their demonic energy and sent to Heaven. The monsters were dead, and the series, whatever form it took, would presumably move on to new Deadites, new monsters working their demonic games in Hell. Instead, though, this third film is slavishly devoted to finding a way to bring Pinhead back because, apparently, without Pinhead we don't have a series.
I question this decision because, frankly, the Deadites are never as interesting as the dread implied by their arrival. That dread comes, mind you, from the puzzle box at the center of these films, the Lemarchand Configuration, and the terrors it promises. It's simple existence, the way people are drawn to it, unable to stop themselves as they solve the box and unleash the terrors of Hell, that promises more danger and terror than anything the Deadites themselves bring. By focusing on Pinhead the film goes with the easy, iconic monster, but it's really the puzzle box that drives the film and that alone should have been what continued uniting these movies.
This is made clear in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (which, if we're being pedantic, should have been called Hell on Earth: Hellraiser III to match the naming convention of the second film) when the film struggles to find a way to make us care about Pinhead's resurrection. For some reason, despite the monster being killed and cleansed in the previous film, it's back as part of a new work of art, the Pillar of Souls. When blood is splashed on the column, it wakes Pinhead, and the demon states he needs victims that can be fed to the pillar. Enough go in and Pinhead is freed, promising pleasures and delights to whoever feeds him. Sure, it's fine, it works in the context of this movie, but it doesn't make sense when viewed from the progression of the larger series.
Who carved this pillar? Did they put Pinhead on there as a decorative element because they'd seen the Deadite before? Or is this pillar a construct of Hell, meaning Pinhead is on there as a way for Hell to resurrect the demon, or to act as a door, or something. These are questions not answered by the film (the film doesn't care about exploring the genesis of the column at all despite devoting a ton of time to the genesis of the puzzle box before this), we just left to go, "huh, evil pillar. Okay." Considering the previous two films had just enough detail to their basic mythology that you could glean all the answers you needed from the info provided, this feels like a massive shortcoming for this film.
Worse, it just feels like a way to please the angry fanboys who wanted their slasher killer back. While Pinhead doesn't feel tacked on here, necessarily, he does tie the story up in knots as it tries to find a way to bring him back fully. We have to have an exploration of what this version of Pinhead is doing, along with bringing back his human side, Captain Elliott Spencer, both played by Doug Bradley. It ends up making the film feel like an exploration of his character which... no. The monster is always more effective when he's a shadowy beast lurking in the corner, just out of sight. The more you explain the beast the less mystique he has. Pinhead becomes less scary here because he just won't shut up (and the film won't shut up about him).
It doesn't help that Pinhead is brought back but none of his cohort get the same treatment. Instead of the iconic characters like Chatterer or Lady Cenobite (literally her name), we have Camerahead, Pistonhead, Barbie, and CD Cenobite. These new creature creations are so bad even the movie has to acknowledge it. Pinhead says, "these new Cenobites are inferior," and it's hard to disagree. "Oh, no! This one Cenobite kills you by flinging CDs at you!" I've seen this creature described as the "most '90s monster ever" and while it's hard to disagree with that, it also just shows a total lack of creativity with the crew on this film.
Thing is, Pinhead isn't technically the main character here. That would be Terry Farrell's Joanne "Joey" Summerskill, a reporter who stumbles onto the story of the Pillar of Souls, the puzzle box, and the demons trying to work their way onto Earth. There could be a deep and chilling story here about a reporter who has to get her hands dirty to find the scoop of the century, but in doing so she ruins her innocence and becomes the next vessel for Hell. Actually, just thinking on it, having her become the replacement for Pinhead when she was working a story to expose that Hell exists sounds way cooler than anything this film has for us.
The issue with Joey is that, as she's presented here, she's a non character. We don't really explore her on anything more than a surface level. She gets dragged into this story because it happens around her, but very rarely does anything in the movie happen because of her. Hell is something she learns about, experiences as it goes on all around her, but she's hardly an active participant in her own story. There's no lesson for her to learn, no deeper meaning for her exploration of this big scoop. She just finds it and then suddenly Pinhead is off and running. Joey is severely disconnected from the actual meat of this tale.
The worst part is that as a horror movie this film is hardly scary. The first couple of films were inventive with their creature effects and gore, at least finding solid moments that made your skin crawl. Here, though, it feels like the production team found the whole concept of a gore-fest silly. There's no heart in the gore and effects, making it feel cheap and uninteresting. I should be able to invest in the on screen thrills at least with a Hellraiser movie, even if the story and characters are dumb, but there's no darker glee to be found here. It's just rote hooks and chains and a bit of blood before it all ends in an unsatisfactory way. I was unimpressed.
Despite this, I do think there's potential for the Hellraiser concept. This film may have bungled it badly, desperate to get the iconic character back without realizing the potential stories possible by the "fresh start" created by the second film. The series could have gone anywhere but instead it ran cowardly back to the safety of Pinhead and the stories we'd already seen and done before. New blood (haha) is needed already because the Hellraiser series is already feeling rote and tired. Hellraiser III had the potential to be great, but instead the only "Hell on Earth" I felt was my utter boredom.