Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

*. September 9, 1988. Hellbound: Hellraiser II has its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And your humble commentary writer was there. I believe it was being run as a “midnight movie.”
*. That is the only world premiere I’ve ever attended. Not much of a bragging point, I know, but I haven’t lived a very interesting life.
*. The movie we saw that night was the director’s cut, which is also the version you’re likely to see today on DVD. As I recall, it was not very well received. The audience was primed, and let out a cheer when Pinhead made his entrance. After that, however, things quieted down, and I had the sense that most of us left feeling led down and confused. Was Pinhead dead? How was that possible? And why? He was the hero!
*. Today there’s some debate over the merits of Hellbound. The rest of the Hellraiser series, it’s pretty widely agreed, went downhill fast, but this film still has its strong supporters. Personally, I find it disappointing, so I’ll start with the question of what went wrong.
*. In the first place, it’s no Hellraiser. There’s no shame in that: Hellraiser was a movie I rate very highly as well as consider a personal favourite and any sequel was almost sure to mark a drop off.
*. Despite expecting the usual let-down, there was reason to be hopeful. Clare Higgins comes back as the wicked stepmom turned evil queen, even though I’d heard she hadn’t enjoyed being in the first film. Kenneth Cranham is very good as the evil and obsessed Dr. Channard running a mad madhouse with a Victorian Bedlam in its basement. Christopher Young’s score is fittingly baroque.

*. But there are problems. Visually it’s reach exceeds its grasp, but as a vision of hell it’s at least interesting and has some unique elements mixed in with the more traditional motifs. Andrew Robinson didn’t want to come back either — he has claimed he was being low-balled, or alternatively that he didn’t like the script — which might have ended up being a plus (his character wasn’t necessary) but apparently led to last-minute rewriting of the script. Also there were arguments over the budget, with the result that it had to be shot for a lot less than they had originally planned on. Can you tell?
*. But if you’re looking for someone to blame for Hellbound I think you have to go straight to the source, to the very man who made Hellraiser an instant classic: Clive Barker.
*. The script is a mess, which may have had something to do with the rewrite but I think is more the result of Barker just not having a strong enough grip on what he wanted to do. The first movie was tight. It could have been shot entirely on a couple of sets, and the story was just as compact and economical.
*. The seeds of this film’s undoing, however, were evident already in Hellraiser. In so far as that film stayed true to his novella The Hellbound Heart it was the better for it. When it started adding things (Kirsty’s boyfriend, the homeless man who turns out to be a demon) it went astray.

*. Hellbound goes even further off track. It wants to give us more on the mythology of the Cenobites and their world but it just ends up a mess. The budget wasn’t up to the effects they wanted, making a lot of what they did get on screen look silly. The action becomes chaotic, and we’re never sure what the larger point is. I mean, when Julia “kills” Frank, isn’t she doing him a favour? And how can he be killed when, as he himself puts it, “when you’re dead you’re fucking dead” anyway?
*. “It’s not hands that summon us. It’s desire.” Sounds fair. But that excuse didn’t help Kirsty in the first movie, did it? And when she tries to raise it as a defence again here, since she didn’t open the box and she’s obviously not a thrill-seeker like Dr. Channard, she’s shut down immediately as someone who can’t be trusted. I think the Cenobites just like her.

*. What are we to make of Kirsty’s subterfuge of donning Julia’s skin? Clearly it’s absurd, an impossibility. So what’s going on? Is the point that this is all just a fairy tale? That’s the best I can come up with.
*. The kink and fetish angle was something new in the first film, but here it seems played out before things even get started. You just don’t feel these people being seduced by obscenity or so plagued by ennui that they’re ready to pay the ultimate price for a new experience.
*. I do like how Julia can not only reconstruct her body from draining the life from others, but the same process can even do her nails and makeup as well.
*. Roger Ebert: “This movie has no plot in a conventional sense. It is simply a series of ugly and bloody episodes strung together one after another like a demo tape by a perverted special-effects man. There is nothing the heroines can do to understand or change their plight and no way we can get involved in their story.” I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is a plot, however sketchy, and the heroines do have agency. Tiffany has to solve that puzzle, most obviously.
*. I like what Ebert says though about a demo tape of gore put out by a special-effects man. The whole final act just seems like they were trying to throw as much splatter at the camera as they could.
*. Most disappointing of all, however, both at the premiere and ever since, is the cursory disposal of Pinhead. Perhaps Barker had grown jealous of his most famous creation but he deserved a better send-off than the flimsy bit of redemption he gets here, his fascination with Kirsty left unexplored so that we feel like we’re being cheated of something. Of course they had to be bring Pinhead back — he was the franchise — but the damage had been done and something important had been lost.

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