Let’s give ourselves a moment to let that sink in.
Not surprisingly, there is a point in this series when the quality of scripts, budgets, and plots takes a noticeable downturn. Some say this happens after the third movie. Others argue the decline really starts around entry #4.
Then, of course, there are some people who dislike every film that came out after the first one.
We’re not going to go quite that far as we rank every Hellraiser movie from worst to best. However, a series built on the premise of what are essentially intergalactic demons (those wacky, persistent Cenobites) looking for new recruits, and functioning essentially as tools of Leviathan. The puzzle box, also known as the Lament Configuration, is another example of the tools used by the ruler of hell.
One of the core concepts of Hellraiser is, of course, Pinhead. Both the character and Doug Bradley’s consistently strong performances across even the weakest sequels are among the reasons why this franchise has impressively persisted. This despite a loose concept (the Cenobites are interested in souls to varying degrees, but also in exploring the cross between pain and pleasure) and sometimes confusing universe.
We also seem to be attracted, as an audience, to the general idea of beings who desire to exist beyond the fathomable with respect to that pain and pleasure we mentioned. Considering Clive Barker based his creation, first a novella, then a surprise hit film released in 1987, on his experiences as a hustler during 1970s/80s S&M culture, that’s at least interesting to keep in mind.
Our species is marked by consistent dissatisfaction. In its own fashion, the Hellraiser franchise has run with that fact to some interesting extremes, even in those less-than-stellar sequels.
Hellraiser Movies Ranked
10. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
Director: Victor Garcia
In all likelihood, the infamous 2011 cinematic ashcan Hellraiser: Revelations is at the bottom of every ranking of the Hellraiser series you’re going to find. There’s no point in trying to rock the boat on that front. In virtually every conceivable sense of the subjective concept of what makes a good movie or a bad one, Hellraiser: Revelations is terrible.
Not being able to secure Doug Bradley for Pinhead is one glaring flaw, to be sure. That doesn’t mean no one else should play Pinhead — it’s not impossible to imagine someone else under those nails. Indeed, at least one actor not named Doug Bradley has played this iconic figure well.
Stephen Smith Collins is a solid character actor. Unfortunately, as Pinhead, he’s given nothing, and ultimately lacks the weight necessary to at least make this character interesting. Everything is working against an actor who wasn’t a good choice for this role in Revelations.
This becomes embarrassingly apparent as the movie plods on, with poor characters, dialog, pacing, and most other aspects of this allegedly-and-intentionally-rushed-production. One of the only things that really keeps you going here is Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s script trying its damndest to restore some of the concepts and themes of the original film, largely absent from the many sequels.
Unfortunately, a potentially intriguing script is just not enough. Unless you’re a completionist, stay away.
9. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Hellraiser: Inferno director Scott Derrickson has gone on to direct some damn good movies. Although Inferno, the fifth film in the series, is not one of them, it does have the occasional redeeming moment or feature.
At the same time, Inferno is also a mess of tone and storytelling. This film shifts the Cenobites to something more overtly religious in nature, or at least more adversarial towards Christianity in general. In this sense, the film boils down Pinhead and company into something that honestly doesn’t have a lot of uniqueness or personality going on. The story of a detective investigating a missing child case with the expected sinister undertones isn’t necessarily a bad one either. Just one that, in the case of Inferno, doesn’t really click with the Cenobites themselves.
Considering that they interact with these characters directly, this takeaway is indicative of this film’s larger problem: Nothing ever really connects. Even when the Cenobites, with a fine performance by Doug Bradley, are directly interacting with our world, they feel like visitors from another film entirely. This feeling starts early in the proceedings, and it never really goes away.
There are some strong visual punches to be found here, but a complete lack of identity is disheartening. This is the point in the Hellraiser series where the star characters didn’t really do any more growing, while the characters around them became increasingly inconsequential.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker reunites franchise favorite Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton with Doug Bradly’s Pinhead. The story, which boils down to a sinister relationship between Kirsty and Pinhead, combined with some interesting thoughts about trauma, amounts to another uneven viewing experience.
With a good supporting cast that includes Dean Winters, Michael Rogers, and William S. Taylor, Hellseeker has the makings of a solid sequel. Kirsty resuming a connection to the Cenobites, explored in two of the best horror films ever made in the 80s, is a really strong idea.
Where things fall apart is in the convoluted nature of this script. It feels like a rush of several ideas, with a second act that just seems to wander around, failing to build on anything, or do anything more significant than raise the body count. That’s fine, at the end of the day, but could have been so much more.
Nonetheless, with some of these performances, and a fairly ambitious ending, Hellraiser: Hellseeker is at least watchable. It once again fails these characters and their mythology and has a hard time justifying itself beyond those measures, but you’re going to do much worse, as far as the worst Hellraiser movies go.
7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Director: Rick Bota
Hellraiser: Deader is cheaply shot and hastily made, and goodness gracious is that ever apparent in virtually every moment of the film. The movie also suffers from being based on a script that wasn’t written with Pinhead in mind in any form or fashion.
So, if this story of a news reporter traveling to Bucharest to investigate a cult which is later found to have ties to the Cenobites doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense to you, there’s a reason for that.
One of the depressing downsides to at least some of these sequels is that they are appallingly transparent in why the studio (Dimension in this case) made them. Scripts were retrofitted without a concern for building on the characters in any way. Locations became less imaginative. Scripts robbed actors like Doug Bradley the opportunity to do more interesting things. Budgets were slashed to accommodate shorter windows of production.
This isn’t uncommon in movies, particularly in horror, but Deader might be among the more crass examples of this practice.
However, that doesn’t mean Deader is without merit, or that people didn’t clearly work to do what they could with what they had. Kari Wuhrer as the reporter is one of the stronger protagonists among the sequels. It becomes very easy to care about her as the film goes on, occasionally offering a strong scene, and also benefiting from pretty good pacing and energy.
But again, Deader never really comes together, and the results aren’t particularly memorable.
6. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
Director: Rick Bota
Hellraiser: Hellworld has even less to do with the larger Hellraiser narrative than some of the titles we’ve covered so far. While this isn’t necessarily a good thing, this story of Hellraiser existing in the world of this film as it does in ours has the benefit of a very focused story. This is clearly another link in the long chain of referential horror movies that was started by Scream nearly ten years earlier. Though that may not work for some diehard fans, it does leave the film open to being able to function in ways different from the prior sequels.
There is an air of desperation to the idea of Hellraiser being a pop culture phenomenon which also exists as an MMORPG title. This is especially true when we’re talking about the seventh sequel since the first film was released in 1987. Yet Hellworld is fairly entertaining, and perhaps easier to stick with than some of the previous sequels. Against all odds, there is a sense of fun here that’s often lacking from some of the others.
It’s easy to watch this film, which sees a mysterious man (Lance Henriksen, who certainly makes everything at least marginally better) target a group of fun-loving teens (yep, that really is Henry Cavill), and just accept everything at face value.
Even with Doug Bradley and Henriksen sharing the screen, this straight-to-video sequel doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond simple entertainment. Well-directed by series regular Rick Bota, that’s fine.
5. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)
Director: Gary J. Tunnicliffe
This might be controversial to say, but the mostly ignored Hellraiser: Judgment really isn’t that bad. While still produced by a studio that didn’t seemingly care about anything more than squeezing a few meager dollars from an ailing franchise, the people surrounding this film clearly go to the furthest lengths possible to at least improve upon the previous release Revelations.
Yes, we have another actor in the Pinhead role once again. However, whereas the first attempt at recasting the character was a failure for several reasons, Paul T. Taylor does quite a good job here with an arguably thankless endeavor. No matter what, it’s hard to completely disconnect Doug Bradley from this role.
Taylor’s performance, however, is something to be appreciated on its own terms. This performance doesn’t move too far away from the aura built around what makes Pinhead so compelling in the first place. At the same time, Taylor finds numerous ways in which to bring his own ideas to Pinhead. The frustrating story and pacing, which includes a police procedural component that drags things to a noticeable degree, can make it difficult to see this. You may also just be unable to accept anyone but Bradley.
Hopefully, you can see through this movie’s low budget and other relatively minor issues, such as a very rushed ending, to appreciate what Taylor brings to the film. The same can be said for director/writer Gary J. Tunnicliffe, whose performance as the genuinely sinister, sometimes humorous Auditor represents one of the best additions to these films since perhaps Hellraiser II.
With all of this, as well as some of the best gore put into one of these films in a while, Judgment has a lot more to offer than one might suspect at first glance.
4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
Directors: Kevin Yagher and Joe Chapelle (uncredited)
Haunted by a troubled production, and then butchered by the studio that wanted more Pinhead for their buck, it’s hard to watch Hellraiser: Bloodline and not feel like you’re watching a bit of a train wreck.
There are at least a couple of movies going on here. We have a story that starts in outer space (which is kind of cool, and probably where the damn thing should have stayed), moves around 1990s New York and 18th century Paris, and focuses on the family responsible for creating the Lament Configuration puzzle box. The narrative thread is clear enough, but there are also large chunks of this film that feel like they were added after the fact. This has “studio interference” written all over it, even if you don’t know a thing about what happened during the making of this movie.
Still, in what would be the final theatrical Hellraiser, as well as the last one to have direct involvement from Clive Baker, Bloodline has a lot to offer. At the very least, it’s the last Hellraiser that looks as though it was made for more than a half-million dollars.
Bloodline explores the full potential of this specific family, responsible for the puzzle box that brings the Cenobites to our dimension in the first place. This story works well at adding something interesting to the larger lore of this series, but you also have a film that works fine enough on its own. Great makeup and the occasional flash of stylistic brilliance pepper a movie that also benefits from performances by Bruce Ramsay, Kim Myers, Valentina Vargas, a very young Adam Scott, and of course, Doug Bradley as Pinhead.
Bloodline is a good movie, but yet again, it clearly could have been better.
3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
Director: Anthony Hickox
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is a lot of fun. In fact, this film is so much fun, you probably won’t care that this whole movie is kind of a mess. It just barely connects to the previous two, while also adopting an entirely new attitude and tone. The result is pure entertainment, but also something that is very distinctly a Hollywood product of the early 90s.
In its atmosphere and sense of humor, this film more closely resembles the worst impulses of the Nightmare on Elm Street series than anything from the imagination of Clive Barker. His presence still hovers here, but the series is clearly moving in a different, more commercial direction at this point.
But once again, this movie is quite frankly a blast from start to finish. Directed with tangible enthusiasm by Anthony Hickox, Hell on Earth features a version of Pinhead that at least works really well. Playing Pinhead in a form separated from its human origins, Bradley portrays Pinhead with a grander tone. This would lose some luster over the sequels, but it’s a riveting burst of appealing energy here.
Terry Farrell as a news reporter whose investigations lead her to Pinhead is an enjoyable adversary, as well. She’s an easy character to like, and her journey to someone who understands what they must do to return Pinhead to Hell is an engaging one to follow. The emotional connection to Pinhead is lacking here, which was a hallmark of Ashley Laurence’s performances as Kirsty in the first and second films, but this is easy enough to forgive.
While the characters and story take on a stunted form at this juncture, with movies that focus more on hitting the beats they think audiences want, Hellraiser III is still eminently likable as one of the best Hellraiser movies.
2. Hellraiser (1987)
Director: Clive Barker
Hellraiser is an indisputable classic of horror. It was a welcome change-of-pace from those slasher movies which dominated the era, but which were also starting to run out of gas. It brought violence, a strange concept and characters, and a depraved, psychologically inventive character to audiences that were fairly desperate for something different.
The film delivers the essentials horror fans were largely expecting at this point. Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) moves his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and new wife Julia (Clare Higgins) into his old family home. Unfortunately for Larry, his new wife has been having an affair with his psychotic brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who also happened to be living in the house everyone has just moved into. Further complicating matters is the fact that Frank also opened the Lament Configuration in the house.
Hellraiser has a lot of plot and distinctive characters. You may have noticed that the puzzle box, and by proxy, Pinhead and the other Cenobites, are really just one small part of that story. That’s because they are, with the real stars of this story being the multifaceted family drama outlined above. Pinhead is simply an inevitable conclusion to the puzzle box whose importance becomes pronounced as the movie goes on.
The buildup to our meeting with Pinhead is flawless, and that first cinematic encounter is one of the best introductions in horror history.
This movie benefits greatly from vital makeup effects, memorable violence, and some of the best performances in horror. All the principles mentioned, particularly Clare Higgins as the brutal Julia, give some of the best performances of their careers. Everything in this film is just about perfect.
1. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Director: Tony Randel
A sequel was inevitable to a movie that cost approximately $1 million and grossed more than $13 million. Luckily for audiences, everyone essentially came back for the sequel to tell a much larger, scarier, and more creative story than even the heights established by the first film.
In other words, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a rare sequel. It builds on everything we liked about the original, and it comes up with a lot of interesting ways to spin off from that foundation. The result is a movie that’s even busier than the first one, occasionally to its detriment, but this is still a ride unlike just about anything ever seen in a horror film.
Picking up shortly after the events of the first, Julia (Clare Higgins in a performance that won an Oscar in an alternate universe) is eager to get out of Hell. While her stepdaughter Kirsty is confined to a psychiatric hospital for everything she endured in part one, Julia forges a horrifying relationship with the doctor in charge of Kirsty’s care.
Worse yet for Kirsty, this doctor (a sublimely vile Kenneth Cranham) has a prior obsession with the Lament Configuration, or any of the puzzle boxes created by the Lemarchand family (who we later meet at greater length in Bloodline). He’s also profoundly in love with Julia, which leads to some disturbing, vicious consequences.
Hellraiser II is the most visually and psychologically graphic expression of the Hellraiser series exploring the idea of boundless ecstasy by being devoured by an equally boundless embrace of agony. It forces us to consider this topic to a degree most of us would never reach on our own.
Along the way, Hellbound never fails to be a brilliant horror movie, packed with the best visuals of the series. There are also excellent performances by Ashley Laurence and Sean Chapman, as well as Cenobite favorites like Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, and Barbie Wilde.
To date, nothing in this franchise comes close to what this movie achieved as one of the most unique horror movies of the last 40 years.
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