The Movie Waffler Bluray Review - HELLRAISER QUARTET OF TORMENT | The Movie Waffler


Boxset of the first four instalments of the horror series.

Review by Eric Hillis


Arrow Video's Quartet of Torment collects the first four movies of Clive Barker's Hellraiser series, all newly restored in 4K.


Shot for a paltry $1 million, Clive Barker's Hellraiser proved a surprise box office hit on its initial release in 1987, spawning multiple sequels (and a reboot) of ever decreasing quality and putting its writer-director firmly on the horror map.

Based on Barker's novella 'The Hellbound Heart', Hellraiser is the story of American businessman Larry Cotton (Dirty Harry's antagonist Andrew Robinson) and his British wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who move into the former's dilapidated family home in London. Despite a gross infestation of maggots and roaches in the kitchen, Larry is happy to make it their home. Julia isn't so keen until she stumbles across some photographs of Larry's handsome brother Frank (Sean Chapman) engaging in coitus with a series of women. Through flashbacks we learn that Julia was herself one of Frank's lovers, and the look on her face tells us she still holds a candle for the rogue.

When Larry cuts his hand open on an inconveniently placed nail in the attic, his blood drips down through the floorboards and onto a few pieces of rotting meat, which happen to be the remains of poor old Frank. The blood regenerates Frank - well, partially, as he returns in the form of a rotting skeleton. When Julia stumbles across her former beau in his icky new form, she is at first repelled, but he works his charm to convince her to provide more blood, which will eventually return him to his original state.

Julia dutifully sets about seducing a series of barflys, luring them up to the attic and bludgeoning them so Frank can feast on their blood, becoming a little closer to human with each victim he consumes. Meanwhile, a group of interdimensional S&M freaks, the Cenobites - led by the character we would come to know as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) - are searching for Frank, who is in possession of the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box with the power to open a portal between dimensions.

Subsequent instalments of the Hellraiser franchise would put the Cenobites, and Pinhead in particular, front and centre, but Barker's sparing use of his creations here make them all the more impactful when they show up. Inspired by notorious libertine Barker's regular visits to S&M fleshpots, they're a striking bunch, none more so than Pinhead, one of horror cinema's most visually audacious creations.

For the most part, Hellraiser is a gritty, kitchen sink thriller with a very British aesthetic. There are moments of black comedy - Frank's infamous "Jesus wept" line is unforgettable - but Barker plays his sadistic thrills largely straight. At a time when the horror genre was embracing comedy with 'splatstick' sequels to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street, Barker's film stood out from the crowd with its philosophical musings on the relationship between pleasure and pain, and a commitment to practical FX in service not of cheap grossout gags but rather in the cause of genuine repulsion.

Hellraiser is undoubtedly rough around the edges. Barker admits he was out of his depth in the director's chair, and his direction is as flat as an episode of a UK soap opera, but the dazzling designs of the cenobites go a long way towards making up for the blandness found elsewhere. He does however display an understanding of the psychological impact of minor details - witness how a character's eyes suspiciously change colour, alerting us that something truly horrific has just played out.

Where the film suffers most is with its human characters, who aside from the always watchable Robinson, are played by some of the most unconvincing actors to appear in a horror movie. It doesn't help that many of the performers are British actors dubbed unconvincingly with American accents in an effort to appease the US audience. Hardcore horror fans, well accustomed to the dodgy dubbing of Italian productions, will overlook this, but it may be a stumbling block for casual modern viewers discovering Barker's film for the first time.

Claiming he wanted to become a director to prevent other filmmakers from misinterpreting his work (witness the previous year's adaptation of his short story Rawhead Rex, which I have to admit I adore for all its goofiness), Barker soon admitted the page, rather than the screen, was where his talents lay. Bernard Rose's excellent Candyman would prove Barker's fears unfounded, but while a more experienced filmmaker may have given us a more technically adroit movie than Hellraiser, would it have offered us such an iconic glimpse into the recesses of its creator's arguably deranged mind?

Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Hellbound: Hellraiser II
It's a sign of how tightly run the film industry was back in the 1980s that if a movie proved a box office success, a sequel would invariably pop up the following year (the surprise at Scream 6 arriving just a year after its predecessor tells you how rare this has now become). The standout image of Clive Barker's original was of course Doug Bradley's Pinhead, so it's no surprise that the sequel opens with a prologue that fills in the iconic character's backstory. Turns out Pinhead was once a mere mortal human himself until he got his hands on the Lament Configuration and literally unleashed Hell.

Taking its cues from 1981's Halloween II, Hellbound: Hellraiser II begins its main narrative just hours after the conclusion of the first movie. Oddly, it retrofits the previous events from the UK to the US by having the bloody crime scene of the original now visited by a pair of American cops. Nowhere else is such regional specificity indicated, so it's a baffling choice. Anyhow, the first film's young heroine Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is now in a psychiatric hospital, which ties in with the original's ending but also feels like an opportunistic way of riding the coat-tails of the previous year's Dream Warriors, which revived the Nightmare on Elm Street series after a divisive second instalment (which has since gone on to acquire cult status due to its queer subtext).

In a plot that harks back to the classic horrors of the 1930s and '40s, the institute is run by a mad doctor, Channard (Kenneth Cranham, a Shakespearean actor who took the role to please his horror-loving grandson), who conducts cruel experiments in the building's lower level. Channard also has a collection of cenobite paraphernalia in his home (which has a Cronenbergian coldness), including three Lament Configuration boxes and the bloody mattress Julia (Clare Higgins) met her demise on at the end of the first movie. Sacrificing one of his patients, Channard revives Julia, initially in skeletal and sinewy form, eventually bringing her back to her whole self with a new 1940s femme fatale look.

Owing a debt to Eyes Without a Face, these early scenes of Channard reviving Clare and her subsequent seduction of the mad doc prove the film's ghoulish highlight. The make-up effects on "skinless" Clare are outstanding, holding up in often unforgiving 4K. Higgins has fun vamping it up, comparing herself to a wicked stepmother from a fairy tale when she's discovered by Kirsty.

The movie's second half plays out in an often visually stunning vision of Hell that reminds us just what filmmakers were able to achieve on relatively constrictive budgets in this era. Along with Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), a teenage inmate of Channard's asylum who figured out the Lament puzzle, Kirsty must escape this labyrinth, running into Frank along the way while pursued by Julia, Pinhead and crew, and a now cenobite Channard.

This portion of the movie certainly has some sights to show us but after a while it becomes distancing to watch Kirsty run into various chambers of horrors. Barker's absence (he wrote the story outline but passed on writing and directing) is felt in the lack of a meaty plot for us to chew on, and while we admire the visuals it does start to feel like we're watching a walk through of a haunted house attraction (much like another sequel of this era, 1987's House 2).

While it's never remotely as gripping as its predecessor, Hellbound captivates as a relic of a time when special effects artists were rock stars in the pages of Fangoria, and it makes today's mainstream horrors of the Waniverse and Blumhouse stable seem entirely devoid of imagination by comparison. Despite its poor reception, it does seem to have proven influential on other filmmakers. Pascal Laugier's Martyrs owes much to Channard's search for answers to what awaits us on the other side of mortality, and the image of Sam Neill's cross-covered padded cell in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness was surely inspired by a brief look at a similarly decorated cell housing one of Channard's unfortunate patients.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
With Barker bailing, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth marks the point where the series begins to divert from its original heady themes into a schlocky franchise that turns Pinhead into a Freddy Krueger knockoff. While the purists (including my snooty teenage self) might have baulked in 1992, Hellraiser III surprisingly holds up as a highly entertaining and visually impressive piece of schlock.

The second movie ended with Pinhead trapped inside a sort of chopping block of horrors which has now been reinvented as a sculpture purchased by douchebag impresario JP Monroe (Mark Wahlberg lookalike Kevin Bernhardt), who installs the piece in his New York nightclub The Boiler Room.

When an incident at the club leads to a young man being torn apart by chains that seem to come to life, TV reporter Joey (a pre Deep Space 9 Terry Farrell) begins snooping around and finds the Lament Configuration is in the hands of Terri (Paula Marshall), a young party girl who swiped it from Monroe's sculpture.

This leads to Joey being visited in her dreams by Elliot Spencer (Doug Bradley), the human we saw transformed into Pinhead in the second movie's prologue. Spencer is trapped in limbo and needs Pinhead to be destroyed in order to end his suffering. Meanwhile Pinhead has convinced Monroe to feed him souls, which in this case is played out in a campy fashion not dissimilar to the feeding of the man-eating plant in Roger Corman's Little Shop of Horrors.

With some striking cinematography by Gerry Lively and the sort of inventive production design the series had become known for at this point, Hellraiser III is a reminder of how great mainstream horror movies looked before the blandness of Scream and its teen horror clones took over in the second half of the '90s. We're treated to a new set of cenobites here, all clever variations on their prior human forms (my favourite being the DJ with CDs sticking out of his head). The slaughter is expansive, with a nightclub massacre that wouldn't be out of place in a Final Destination movie, and Joey chased through the nighttime streets of New York by the cenobites as the city explodes around her. It's a film that certainly makes the most of its relatively small budget.

While the ambiguity of Pinhead is binned for an outright villain who likes to crack wise, you have to admit Bradley is a lot of fun in the role. While it's the first movie in the series to be shot outside England, director Anthony Hickox (son of Theatre of Blood director Douglas Hickox and legendary editor Anne V. Coates) brings a very British eccentricity that Bradley latches onto. Farrell is very good in a lead role that might be read by modern viewers as queer-coded, and it's a shame she didn't have a bigger career outside the world of Star Trek.

Hellraiser: Bloodline

Hellraiser: Bloodline
With seemingly nowhere else left for them to go, a bunch of horror villains found themselves sent to space in the '90s, and Pinhead was no exception. In this case it makes perfect sense. The cenobites have been around for centuries so there's no reason why they wouldn't still be around centuries from now.

Hellraiser: Bloodline opens in 2127 on a space station controlled by Doctor Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), the latest character to find himself in possession of the Lament Configuration. Merchant has come up with a plan to release Pinhead and co. on the station before destroying it. Just after releasing Pinhead, Merchant is interrupted by a crew of space marines.

The movie then becomes something of an anthology as Merchant relays two stories involving his ancestors. The first takes us back to 1796 Paris where toymaker Phillip LeMarchand (also Ramsay) is commissioned to create the Lament Configuration for an evil magician who uses it to summon a demon, which takes over the body of prostitute Angelique (Valentina Vargas).

The second story jumps to New York 1996 where architect John Merchant (Ramsay again) has constructed a building based on the design of the Lament Configuration, as hinted at in Hellraiser III's coda. Merchant is working on a plan to illuminate interiors with perpetual light, which unbeknownst to him, would double as a means of closing the gateway to Hell. Still alive, Angelique heads to New York to stop Merchant, summoning Pinhead along the way.

Where the first two Hellraiser movies were uniquely original, the third riffed on A Nightmare on Elm Street. Bloodline feels heavily influenced by Interview with the Vampire, with Angelique representing a similarly immortal being. A young Adam Scott was likely cast in his role as Angelique's lover because of his resemblance to Tom Cruise in the Anne Rice adaptation. Where Pinhead employs suffering, Angelique favours seduction, echoing the eroticism of so many screen vampires.

Vargas is certainly a seductive presence and Bradley is as intimidating as ever as Pinhead, but the film is an uninspired sequel that just about manages to tell a story, though in a bland fashion out of keeping with its predecessors. Original director Kevin Yagher disowned the film, opting for the infamous Alan Smithee credit. I'm not sure it's quite bad enough to justify such a move. It's competently made but there's no passion for the material on display. The whole thing feels like an obligatory effort to wring some more money out of a dying franchise, and it's only the occasional clever cenobite design (including a cenobite hound and two twins merged together) that offers anything new of note to the film.

Hellraiser: Bloodline was the last in the series to receive a theatrical release in the US and the first to go straight to video in the rest of the world. It was a sorry indication of where the franchise was headed, with several uninspired sequels knocked out largely for the sake of holding onto the rights in the decades to come.

New audio commentaries for all four films by film critic Kim Newman and Hellraiser unit publicist Stephen Jones, also joined by screenwriter Peter Atkins on Hellraiser: Bloodline; new 60-minute discussion about Hellraiser and the work of Clive Barker by film scholars Sorcha Ní Fhlainn and Karmel Kniprath; new visual essay celebrating the Lament Configuration by genre author Alexandra Benedict; new 60-minute discussion between horror authors Paula D. Ashe and Eric LaRocca celebrating the queerness of Hellraiser and the importance of Barker as a queer writer; new visual essay exploring body horror and transcendence in the work of Barker by genre author Guy Adams; newly uncovered extended EPK interviews with Barker and stars Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, and effects artist Bob Keen shot during the making of Hellraiser; new 80-minute appreciation of Hellbound, the Hellraiser mythos and the work of Barker by horror authors George Daniel Lea and Kit Power; new appreciation of composer Christopher Young's scores for Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II by Guy Adams; unrated version of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth; new featurette exploring the Cenobites' connection to goth, fetish cultures and BDSM; archive commentaries and featurettes, including interviews with Barker, Doug Bradley, Tony Randel, Anthony Hickox, Sean Chapman, Paula Marshall and others.

Hellraiser Quartet of Torment is on 4K UHD and bluray from October 23rd. All four films will be available to stream on Arrow from the same date.