Sunday, September 11, 2022

Down the Dark Decades of Your Pain: Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth at 30

Hitting theaters in back to back years of '87 and '88, Hellraiser and its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, are arguably the greatest one-two punch in '80s horror. Yes, a convincing case can also be made for the first two Evil Deads but I lean slightly towards that early pair of Hellraisers, two movies that brought a lurid and lascivious attitude (not to mention copious buckets of slime and gore) to the increasingly safe and sterile late '80s horror scene. It's when it become a trilogy is where Hellraiser ran into trouble. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, first released thirty years ago on September 11th, 1992, represented the Americanization of the staunchly British, and thus far bloody and baroque, series. Despite continuing to be guided by British talent, III was crafted to have a mainstream American vibe. With its action set in New York City (actually filmed in Greensboro, North Carolina with some establishing shots of Times Square and the Twin Towers included), Hell on Earth was designed to be a slicker, more pop orientated product, a fact that rubbed many fans of the first two films the wrong way. However, as a fan of the first two I was still enthusiastic for this newly commercialized brand of Hellraisin' and on the occasion of its 30th anniversary I continue to embrace this admittedly lesser sequel as a damn good time and as a nostalgic snapshot of early '90s horror. 

With a script by Hellbound: Hellraiser II writer Peter Atkins (sharing story co-credit with Hellbound director Tony Randel), Hell on Earth represented a big push to make Pinhead into a rock star. Freddy Krueger had been laid to rest in 1991's Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare and every other big horror icon was between sequels at the time, with the poor reactions to their previous outings having left them in limbo. In 1992, there was no Jason, no Michael Myers, no Leatherface, no Chucky. At that moment, everything was primed for Pinhead to go to the next level, with no competition. Initially, Pinhead had been just one of the gang in the original Hellraiser but the reaction to his striking look and to Doug Bradley's commanding performance caused his profile to be increased in Hellbound but Julia (Clare Higgins) was still very much the main villain of that sequel with even her wicked cohort and would-be lover Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) having a stronger evil presence than Pinhead, to the point where Channard himself made quick work of Pinhead and his OG cenobites in their big face off. With Hell on Earth, though, it was very much Pinhead's show and this film was a concerted effort to take a big swing with him. Never again would Doug Bradley have so much screen time as Pinhead and also as his human alter ego of WW I vet Elliot Spencer. 

The road to Hell here, courtesy of Atkins' screenplay, is a somewhat convoluted one, involving several different players. When a funky stone pillar with an array of twisted, tormented faces carved into it (including the trapped Pinhead) catches the eye of twentysomething Goth girl Terri (Paula Marshall) at an art gallery, she gives her boyfriend J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt), owner of the hot nightclub The Boiler Room, a heads up about this piece that might suit his morbid tastes. Sure enough, this Pillar of Souls (last seen at the end of Hellbound) is totally J.P.'s thing and the mysterious owner of the gallery is happy to sell it to J.P. at whatever price J.P. is ready to pay. Once the statue arrives at the Boiler Room, a club attendee with sticky fingers discovers it and pries the tempting prize of the Lament Configuration loose from its stone surface. After futzing with the box he soon finds his flesh embedded with hooks and chains in classic, super painful Hellraiser fashion.  

It's at this point that we and III's heroine (Terry Farrell as up and coming TV reporter Joanne "Joey" Summerskill) come into the action. The backstory of the thief separating the puzzle box from the pillar is an off-screen incident that Terri relates to Joey afterwards. At first we and Joey are plunged into the chaos of the thief being hastily wheeled into the ER with chains pulling his body apart. Having been assigned by her station to cover the action at the normally busy ER, Joey was in the middle of cursing the night's uncommon lack of incident (it's so uneventful her cameraman has to leave to cover breaking news elsewhere) when this victim suddenly bursts through the ER doors on a stretcher, bloody chains dragging behind him. Within seconds, his head explodes in a burst of gory glory and Joey's keen reporter instincts kick in to tell her that, hey, there just might be a story here. 

Terri had accompanied the victim to the hospital but fled soon after but not before she uttered the words "Boiler Room" to Joey. Soon, Joey has figured out that the Boiler Room is a downtown club and she makes her way there to question the aloof, arrogant J.P. and seek out Terri for answers. Needing a place to crash after J.P. breaks up with her and kicks her out, Terri agrees to help Joey in her investigation if she will put her up at her place. Soon the two ladies find themselves bonding (one of the strengths of III is the gal pal chemistry between Farrell and Marshall) and uncovering answers, like the origin of the Pillar of Souls and of the box that was embedded in it.   

Meanwhile, back at J.P.'s pad within the Boiler Room, his newly added room decor is starting to talk. J.P. had reached his hand into the open space where the Lament Configuration had been only to be bitten by a rat hiding inside. He drew his hand out and the blood from his wound splashed on the pillar and was quickly absorbed, awakening Pinhead. Of course Pinhead needs to absorb much more blood to completely extricate himself from the pillar and for that he's going to need his new boy J.P.. Turns out this trust fund kid is even more vile than just the garden variety douchebag he comes across as. Apparently he killed his wealthy parents in order to gain their fortune so, as you can imagine, it doesn't take much convincing from Pinhead to get J.P. on board with doing evil shit. What Pinhead doesn't tell him is that this new partnership is a one way ticket to Hell.

Before long, Pinhead is back in fighting form and J.P., along with the unfortunate Terri, the DJ at the Boiler Room, its bartender (played by writer Peter Atkins), and Joey's loyal cameraman, find themselves unwillingly recruited into forming Pinhead's fresh n' funky Class of '92 posse.

These new cenobites are quite a crew. If you're ok with the style these guys are rocking, you can get on board with this movie no problem. If you happen to think a CD Head or Camerahead cenobite just look stupid however, well, it's probably going to make it tough to warm up to Hell on Earth. I do agree this is a very silly bunch, not at all in the league of the truly bizarre and unsettling cenobites of the original. In contrast, these guys are like the Hot Topic Cenobites. They're not so much a representation of dark desires as of poor life choices. When you have a cenobite that's whipping deadly CD's through the air like ninja stars or breathing fire like Gene Simmons at a KISS concert, you just have to accept that this is a very different style of Hellraiser movie. 

To clarify, it's the kind of Hellraiser where they give the cenobites one-liners like "...That's a wrap!" I can't argue with anyone who finds that to be an intolerable offense but, for myself, I find it to be enjoyably goofy. I mean, at one point Barbie Cenobite does his finest Kool-Aid Man impression by entering a scene by bursting through a brick wall. It's just pure '90s ridiculousness. Now, had they made a joke of Pinhead himself, that would have been another story, that would have been a deal breaker, but they definitely don't. He may be presiding over a bit of a clown show at times but he always maintains his gravitas. When he's single-handedly orchestrating a slaughter of everyone at the Boiler Room, it's hardcore by '90s standards. And as cut rate as these new cenobites may be, they're well suited to the action orientated approach of Hell on Earth. You can't imagine the OG cenobites having a big showdown with the police in the middle of a city street but these guys are tailor made for it. They came ready to party.

Hell on Earth director Anthony Hickox was one of the busier genre directors of the late '80s/early '90s and his output - including Waxwork and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat - remains some of the most entertaining of the decade. Hell on Earth was his most high profile film, the rare one to be granted a wide theatrical release rather than a direct-to-video one, and he did a bang up job of making this an unabashedly commercial sequel. The entire final act of Hell on Earth is a splashy action extravaganza that would not have been at home in either of the previous Hellraisers but Hickox goes for it with explosions galore as Joey flees from Pinhead and the new cenobites. It's the kind of extended final chase typically seen in slasher movies where the Final Girl is pursued after every one else has fallen to Jason or Michael but here it's Pinhead relentlessly pursuing Joey through the streets of NYC, siccing his new goon squad on her and on anyone who stands in his way, whether it be the cops or the priest that Joey encounters in a church she tries to take refuge in. There's never been a sequence like it in any Hellraiser before or since, with the action continually escalating beat by beat in an almost relentless Terminator-esque fashion. It goes big in a way that Hellraiser never attempted again.

The turn towards spectacle may have felt like a sell out move to many but it should be said that, at the time, the more straightforward, streamlined, audience pleasing approach of Hell on Earth was seen by some as an improvement over the muddy metaphysics of Hellbound. Also bolstering the excitement factor of Hell on Earth was the fact that this was the first entry in the series to feature CGI. As much as we've come to take CG for granted, it was still a novel new FX tool in '92. With the game-changing technology initially only exclusive to blockbusters like The Abyss and T2: Judgement Day, it was cool in '92 to see it first start to appear in the likes of Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, Sleepwalkers, and Hell on Earth. It was genuinely eye-catching to see glimpses of CG in the trailers and TV spots for these films because it was a look were weren't jaded to yet. It was a fresh sight, especially in low budget horror. CG wasn't always an ideal fit with horror but used sparingly, it worked well in Hell on Earth and at the time it gave it the state of the art sheen of a new era. 

By the early '90s, the halcyon days of the '80s had passed and the genre was largely out of favor with the studios so when a horror film actually got a theatrical release back then it was notable. I tend to have fond memories of pretty much all the horror movies that hit theaters then because they were so few and far between. And when you had one that really strove to deliver a good time and be a straight up crowd pleaser in the way that Hell on Earth did, that was all the better. 

I cheered Hell on Earth all the way through, right to its final frames where it's revealed that the new building built on the spot where Joey disposed of the puzzle box in the wet cement of a construction site has somehow been designed in the style of the Lament Configuration. How that happened exactly, I don't know and I don't think anyone involved in the movie does either but damn if it didn't look cool. Bottom line, I felt very satisfied when the end credits rolled on Hell on Earth. Pumped, even. It was one of the best horror rides of the year and it felt like the Hellraiser franchise had been newly energized for the '90s. It wasn't a long lived feeling but it was nice while it lasted.  

At one point during Hell on Earth's climax, as Pinhead's new crew surrounds Joey, he taunts her with the promise that "down the dark decades of your pain, this will seem like a memory of heaven." Thirty years later, I have to say those words weren't entirely wrong. It may not be the sort of nostalgia that Pinhead was talking about but it's still true to say that Hell on Earth endures as a fond memory for fans who were there to enjoy it back in the day. It glows with the aura of a simpler, more innocent time and that in itself is heavenly enough. 

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