If you've never seen it before, you may have heard that Hellraiser III sucks. If you have seen it, you may remember that it does. While it is by no means the worst installment in the long-running (and often unfortunate) Hellraiser franchise, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is a far less ambitious horror film than its two predecessors.
Hellraiser III replaces the British soundstages and independent, DIY spirit of the first two movies with slick Hollywood production values - and loses its hellish soul along the way. Writer/director Clive Barker is almost nowhere to be found this time out, and while screenwriter Peter Atkins (who wrote the second installment in the series) and Pinhead actor Doug Bradley are both back, the film jettisons the rest of the cast in favor of new faces and new Cenobites - including a starring turn by Terry Farrell just a year before she started playing Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Meanwhile, studio interference tried to position Pinhead - a fan-favorite character that has inspired countless merchandise and even a gender-bent figurine - as a Freddy Krueger-style slasher villain.
The result is not only the worst of the first three Hellraiser movies, but also the flagpost upon which the franchise begins its long descent into direct-to-video hell.
The first two Hellraiser films were both financed by New World Pictures, which went bust before filming could begin on Hellraiser III. After a gap of several years - during which the rights to the films were in dispute - the franchise was ultimately acquired by Trans-Atlantic Entertainment. Along with the new studio came a new shift in focus.
Tony Randel, who had previously directed Hellbound: Hellraiser II, was originally going to return for the third film along with screenwriter Peter Atkins. However, in the production notes that accompany the Arrow Video Blu-ray, Bob Keen, special effects coordinator on all three films, said:
Randel had problems with the producers which would have made Hellraiser 3 unworkable from everyone's point of view. Their visions differed so greatly; Randel wanted the same sci-fi tinged Hellbound one; they wanted Hellraiser 3 geared for popular, cross-over box office success and were turned off by Randel's darker aspects which they felt would limit it only to horror audiences.
In the notes that accompany the Arrow Video Blu-ray, screenwriter Peter Atkins offers a candid - and unflattering - view of the new production company Trans-Atlantic and producer Lawrence Mortorff: "They came onto the project knowing nothing about the property and, if anything, wanted a highly commercial slasher concept with a comedic twist." While Atkins said he and the studio eventually came to an agreement after "a week of me getting on my knees begging, screaming and talking at them," the Pinhead of Hellraiser III is definitely more of a one-liner-spouting slasher villain than he ever was before.
In this way, Pinhead is probably a victim of his own popularity. In the original Hellraiser, the character is simply credited as "Lead Cenobite" - one among many sadomasochistic beings regarded as "demons to some; angels to others." Yet even before Hellbound: Hellraiser II had hit theaters, the public was already clamoring for more Pinhead. "The first movie had just opened," Atkins recalled, "and already audience reaction to Doug Bradley was making it pretty clear that the character he played, Pinhead, was the one people were paying to see and would pay to see again."
Originally, the intent had been to make Julia, played by Clare Higgins in the first two movies, into the franchise's recurring villain. However, it wasn't just public opinion that swayed the filmmakers toward Pinhead. "Clare Higgins made it clear to us during the filming of Hellbound that her ambitions lay somewhere other than in being our female Boris Karloff or Robert Englund," Atkins said. So, Pinhead became the face of the franchise.
Hoping to build on the success of the first two films, Trans-Atlantic pushed for what was then considered a more franchise-friendly approach. This led to Pinhead spouting corny dialogue and doing things like spitting out bullets after his opponents fire at him. Of course, it's the new Cenobites who get the most cringeworthy one-liners. The Cenobite with a camera lodged in his skull (named, obviously, "Camerahead") asks our lead, "Ready for your close-up?"
Most of the Cenobites in Hellraiser III don't show up until the last reel, but they leave a lasting impression. "Isn't Hellraiser III the one with the CD head Cenobite?" people will ask if you ever bring up the movie. And you will hang your head and mutter, "Yes."
The Cenobite known as CD may be the worst offender, but he's far from the only one. Most of the new Cenobites are pretty goofy. There's the aforementioned Camerahead, as well as a former bartender (played by screenwriter Peter Atkins) wrapped in barbed wire who throws Molotov cocktails and spits fire. It should be noted that all previous Cenobites in the series are implied to have, at some level, desired to undergo their transformation into leather-clad beings with a fetish for hooks and chains. Camerahead, CD, and Barbie are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet even Paula Marshall's "Dreamer" Cenobite, who ostensibly agrees to join Pinhead's group, is as bland as can be. She smokes a cigarette through a hole in her throat and gives our protagonist cigarette burns - not exactly the level of torment we've come to expect from the franchise.
With Cenobites this silly and uninspiring, it would seem the effects team - which included folks who had worked on Terminator 2 and Total Recall - were either in on the joke or working in less-than-ideal conditions. To hear special effects coordinator Bob Keen tell it, nothing could be further from the truth. "The most important thing for us was to come up with characters and Cenobites that would be even better than those in the first two films," he says in the production notes that accompany the Arrow Video Blu-ray.
Keen adds that his team's goal was to top their previous work to the degree that they actually gave themselves nightmares. "I always wanted to go further with the Cenobites, right from day one, and we've certainly done that with Hellraiser 3," he claims.
Unfortunately, the Cenobites in Hellraiser III are proof that "further" isn't necessarily "better."
As Doug Bradley revealed on the Brainwaves podcast, Clive Barker originally had some very different plans for where Hellraiser III should go. These included jettisoning Pinhead, introducing the very first Cenobite, and revealing that the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually the first Lament Configuration.
In the production notes that accompany the Arrow Video Blu-ray, it is stated that some of these elements - which were probably far too expensive for Hellraiser III's relatively modest budget - were later reworked into "an unfilmed screenplay called The Egyptian Project." According to Revelations, the Clive Barker website, The Egyptian Project morphed into an unrealized remake of The Mummy. (It may also share some DNA with a film that did get made: the 1999 version of The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.)
So why wasn't Barker more involved in the third film? "It was clear the production company didn't want me on board for financial reasons," he claims. "Head honcho Lawrence L. Kuppin wanted his stamp on it, not mine, and he didn't want me hanging around. I was reasonably expensive and, frankly, I knew he wanted something cheap and nasty."