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.
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.