Hellraiser - The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy Review
I've always been a horror fan. For as long as I can remember I've enjoyed the ghoulish and spooky side of cinema. From seeing, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a nipper via Romero's, Dawn of the Dead to Saw, Hostel and Martyrs, the horror genre has loomed large in my life. Clive Barker's Hellraiser though, was one film (and franchise) which passed me by for some reason. It took me almost 20 years to get round to watching Hellraiser and in that time it spawned numerous sequels and spin offs, whilst lead bad guy, Pinhead, became a bona fide horror icon, alongside Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Leatherface.
My initial impression upon viewing the film, 20 years out of time, was not the best. It seemed to me, in 2007, terribly dated and a somewhat confused film. The wardrobe department screams mid-1980's in every outfit Clare Higgins wears yet, brilliantly, pushes into BDSM and body modification territory for Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites. The movie was made in the UK and although no specific location is given in the narrative, the locales used look very British. Despite this, we are presumably meant to be somewhere in the United States, as most of the supporting cast have absurdly dubbed American accents. There are reasons for the voice dubbing, which I will come to later, but I wasn't aware of them in 2007 and so my first brushes with Hellraiser were less than inspiring.
So then, a perfect chance to re-visit/re-appraise the franchise in magnificent HD with this marvellous package from Arrow.
'Pain Is So Close to Pleasure' - Queen
Adapted from Clive Barker's novella, The Hellbound Heart, and directed by the man himself, Hellraiser is the tale of a tragic love triangle gone horribly wrong. When Larry and Julia Cotton (played by Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins respectively) move into Larry's family home to try and rebuild their patchy marriage, it awakens memories of Julia's past infidelity with Larry's brother, Frank (Sean Chapman).
Frank seems to have been squatting in the house until recently and, upon finding his personal effects in a bedroom, Julia starts to yearn for her old lover. However, unbeknowst to Larry and Julia, Frank has been killed and bodily torn apart in the attic of the house, by beings from another dimension called Cenobites. These beings were released from a mysterious puzzle box that Frank had acquired on his travels and they deal in pushing the limits of pleasure and pain, blurring the line between the two. Frank summoned them to experience these new limits and paid the price.
When Larry cuts his hand on a nail, he drips blood on the floorboards in the attic, which soon resurrects Frank's decaying remains. Julia finds Frank and hides him from Larry, but is forced to lure strange men to the house with the promise of sex, in order for Frank to feast on them and regenerate his body.
Larry's daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), becomes involved when she confronts her Uncle Frank in the attic and eventually opens the puzzle box herself, unleashing the Cenobites once more. With Frank determined to regenerate his body and, Pinhead and his cohorts (including the brilliant Chatterer!) to contend with, Kirsty will have to use her wits to survive.
Viewed now, with the knowledge of behind the scenes production issues, I think Hellraiser is a deserved cult classic horror movie. Indeed, with a first time director in Barker, Hellraiser is a surprisingly accomplished piece of cinema. Though quite tame by today's standards, it must have been quite a grisly experience for some in 1987, with bodies being torn apart and a fair smattering of bloody gore. All the lead players give good performances and the production design is fantastic, creating a great, gloomy atmosphere. The film was only completed with the help of U.S. production company, New World, who invested money to finish off the spectacular 'birth of Frank' sequence and to extend the shoot and so, they asked for some changes to be made in order that the film be better suited to the American market. These included the voice dubbing and changing the soundtrack, which was originally intended to be done by a British band called Coil. To be fair though, the soundtrack scored for the film, by Christopher Young, is brilliant. But oh, those dopey dubbed voices! 8/10
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II
'All Hell Breaks Loose' - Misfits
A sequel to Hellraiser was planned within a week of it's original release, no doubt wishing to strike while the iron was hot on the back of good numbers from the box office. However, New World, who had come on board to get the first film finished and were co-producing the sequel, ran into financial difficulties, hugely affecting the budget available.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II, is a valiant attempt at a sequel and, after a misguided and bizarre re-cap of the original film, actually opens with a great scene, expanding the mythos of Pinhead (Doug Bradley, when we see something of his 'origins' as a British Army Soldier in the 1930's.
I don't think I've ever seen a movie replay events from it's parent film, a la 'Last week on Doctor Who', as Hellbound does. And, not only does it begin with a re-cap, it gives us another scene by scene re-telling of the first film not long after. Just in case we missed it the first time!
We then find Kirsty in a psychiatric hospital under the dubious care of Doctor Channard (Kenneth Cranham), and his assistant, Kyle MacRae (William Hope), who utters the immortal line, "I'm Kyle MacRae. Call me Kyle", to introduce himself to Kirsty! I actually burst out laughing! It's so bad.
The dubious Doctor Channard, quite co-incidentally, has been collecting puzzle boxes and upon hearing Kirsty's tales, figures out a means to resurrect, the now dead, Julia. Quite why he'd want to do this I have no idea but it makes for a bonkers scene with a bloody mattress!
The movie then seems to get muddled up in A Nightmare On Elm Street territory with Kirsty and a fellow patient called Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), descending into hell to, inexplicably, find Kirsty's dad, Larry! Again, I have no idea why, and of course, Larry's not in hell and instead they find none other than Frank. Before long, resurrected Julia turns up, Doctor Channard becomes a Cenobite and all hell breaks loose.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II is exactly what it was when it was made. A rush job. A cynical cash in. The movie creaks at the seams due to the budgetary problems. The script is questionable, the sets are drab and dull and the VFX are a mixed bag, with some great prosthetic work again but some wobbly stop motion animation. At least the performances are, mostly, good but poor William Hope is given nonsense dialogue to work with. Pinhead eventually makes an appearance but leaves less of an impression than in the first film. This, however, would all change for Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, when he would become THE main attraction, capitalising on his rising status as an icon of the horror genre. 5/10
Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth
"Jesus wept" - Hellraiser
The third film in the franchise came along in 1992 and was entirely an American/Canadian production. The script was again provided by Peter Atkins, who did such sterling work on the Hellbound script, and Doug Bradley would return to play Pinhead.
I may as well say right up front, Hellraiser III is my least favourite of the first three movies. The fantastic original premise of the Cenobites now becomes twisted to basically make them, 'general horror movie slashers', who want to enter our world and create hell on Earth. Pinhead becomes the de-facto villain and star of the show but loses much of his original menace and power in the process. The death and blood quotient is taken up a few notches, there's a gratuitous sex scene, we get more re-used scenes from the previous film(s) and we meet some new Cenobites, who look very much like the Borg from Star Trek: TNG. Unlike the second film though, the acting talent on display is, generally, poor, although evidently they didn't have much quality to work with. 3/10
There are now nine Hellraiser films but the law of diminishing returns seems to apply with regards to the quality. The first three films, presented here, are where it all started however and they are all here fully uncut. Indeed there is also the option to watch an unrated cut of Hellraiser III, which runs 4 minutes longer than the theatrical release. This footage is in standard definition, a different aspect ratio and of an inferior quality but I think kudos should go to Arrow for providing the option of watching this cut. The Hellraiser legacy shows no signs of slowing down with books, comics, an on/off remake and even a TV series now in the pipeline, ensuring that Pinhead will endure for a while more yet.
All three movies have been given a 2K remaster, with Hellraiser and Hellbound both having been overseen by original cinematographer, Robin Vidgeon. The results, taken with some realistic expectations, are rather pleasing. All are presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Hellraiser has always looked a murky and grainy film but the new 2K remaster brings a crisp and solidifying freshness to the image. Detail is appreciably better than the DVD, revealing a thick layer of film grain. In certain scenes in the attic the grain does appear to go haywire, dancing all over the screen, but removing this would surely be a false representation of the film so the structure is left just so. Details in even the darkest scenes are good with brickwork, dusty floorboards, a fire damaged door and even the puppeteering team behind the 'engineer' Cenobite being seen in more detail than ever before. Colours appear true, blood and gore, particularly in the 'birth of Frank' scene, is visceral and eye popping and the contrast between light and shade is reasonably crisp, though some scenes appear a little bright. Some flecks and specks do remain but this is certainly the best I've ever seen Hellraiser look and with its low budget origins this is probably as good as it gets.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II also looks, on the whole, quite good but has a slightly softer look with a more washed out colour palette. The natural film grain is much more settled throughout, except for the scenes replayed from Hellraiser, which obviously stand out like a sore thumb. The film's sets themselves are terribly sparse so fine detail is hard to discern but the garden exterior of the Channard Institute reveals individual leaves on bushes, lines on faces are fairly clear (remember the inherent softness though) and the Cenobite costumes look good. Colours seem correct, although of a mostly blue and grey hue and there are occasional pops and spots apparent but the film looks good for a 1988 release.
I had never seen Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth before, but being the most modern of the three films, it may just benefit most from its 2K remaster, with good detail and an even layer of grain. The film also errs towards the softer look and has a solid, very 1990's, colour palette. There are a few day time scenes in the film and these look vibrant and clear, while night time exteriors are adequate, if a little hazy. Skin tones look natural (again, bearing in mind the inherent softness) and the bloody red stuff is vividly gloopy. All in all, a very decent presentation of the movie, in line with its peers from the early 90's which have also transitioned to BD.
Short of top to bottom clean ups, this is likely the best that these three films will ever look and it was a treat, despite my feelings toward the sequels, to view them in HD.
Audiophiles should be more than happy with the uncompressed PCM stereo 2.0 and lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks for both Hellraiser and Hellbound. The PCM 2.0 tracks convey the sound effects and Christopher Young's soundtrack very well. Dialogue very occasionally slips under my hearing range during Hellraiser but otherwise these are crisp and clear tracks with no blemishes.
Hellraiser III has only a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track but this is perfectly adequate for the movie and does the job with no fuss.
N.B. - Subtitles are available for all of the movies but NOT for the extra material, which brings us nicely to......
The sheer amount and quality of the extras provided for this release sends the package stratospheric as far as I'm concerned. This set will comfortably sit alongside my Alien Quadrilogy BD set and my 5 disc, U.S. edition of Blade Runner on Blu. The three film discs all have a plethora of extras, while there is also a fourth disc entirely comprised of bonus material.
Six commentaries. Two for each film. Five of which are collected from previous releases of the films and one of which is brand new, with writer Peter Atkins for Hellraiser III. These are all worth your time. Clive Barker appears on both the chat tracks for Hellraiser and is a fascinating individual. Ashley Laurence appears in two, Doug Bradley does one, while Peter Atkins covers three tracks in total and they are all great to listen to. The directors, Tony Randel and Anthony Hickox also appear for their respective movies and all the participants seem to get on well together and provide great alternative listening for the films.
Over five hours of documentaries. This includes Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which provides 3 and a half hours, of it's 700 minute run time to the set and it is an exhaustive visual document on the two films, even in its shortened state. Most of the major players appear in the documentary and they cover everything you could ever want to know, however, Barker himself is unfortunately missing and that's a shame. Hellraiser III is also covered, with a 30 minute making of doco, while there are also vintage featurettes and EPK's for all three movies, sourced from older releases.
Interviews As well as appearing in the various features, many of the main cast and crew give separate insightful interviews. Clive Barker and Doug Bradley are across all three films, while Sean Chapman, Anthony Hickox and Paula Marshall pop up for their respective movies.
Deleted Surgeon Scene from Hellbound A famous deleted scene from Hellbound featuring Pinhead as a surgeon. Never before released on home video.
Soundtrack Hell is the story of the unused score for Hellraiser, recorded by Coil.
Behind The Scenes Footage
Unseen Hellraiser III VFX dailies
On the bonus disc we have even more goodies, including: Two short films by Barker, Salome and The Forbidden. These shorts come form the early 70's and are very experimental. Perhaps only for Barker completists, they nonetheless provide an interesting look at Barker's early film works and, with The Forbidden in particular, give a glimpse of where he was heading on the road to Hellraiser.
Books of Blood and Beyond is a 19 minute, chronological overview of Barker's written works, presented by horror author David Gatward, who is an enthusiastic and amiable talker.
Hellraiser Evolutions is a brand new, near 50 minute documentary covering the enduring legacy of the franchise. This is another great little feature with talking head interviews and thoughts from some of the directors of the later films in the series.
The Hellraiser Chronicles is a fan made short film and, while it's limitations are plain for all to see, it's a nice touch to include it in the set.
And, of course, as well as all of the above, Arrow have also provided a double sided poster, 5 art cards and a 200 page book with new writings on Hellraiser and still more insights into the production of the films. Beautifully illustrated, this is a wonderful inclusion in the set and a great toilet read!
What else is there to say? The first three Hellraiser films, hours and hours of quality extras and some nice collectible goodies, housed in a sturdy and aesthetically pleasing Scarlet Box, Arrow may just have produced the box set of the year.