Next up on Killtoberfest, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. It was pretty good! No, really.
If you’ll recall, I thought the original Hellraiser‘s story was pretty incoherent, with thin characters and simplistic motivations, but that the film is saved by its thematic meaning, interesting sexual under (and over)tones, and a refreshing set of inventive visuals.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II‘s story is still pretty incoherent, thin and simple, although it leans a little more towards “Hollywood blockbuster” incoherency than the original’s “Clive Barker doesn’t really know how to write a script” incoherency. And obviously the visuals are a little less inventive. But there’s plenty to goggle at, and the themes are still quite strong.
Moreover, this is the rare sequel that decides it should explain everything left unsaid in the original installment that doesn’t make me wish it hadn’t. We learn more about who the Cenobites are, how they operate, what they represent, where they come from, and even their personal origins. This still works, partly because the answers hang together with what we knew before both logically and thematically, and partly because the film is more ambitious than a simple rehash, incorporating those answers into a new story about trauma and desire and taking us all the way to Hell and back. It’s got some odd nooks and crannies (where did that detective go? What about Kirsty’s boyfriend?) but that just helps to keep the movie from becoming too Hollywood slick. Basically, although they surely had more money and crew this time around, the thing still feels homemade enough to charm.
The story picks up almost exactly where the first movie left off, with Kirsty’s obvious emotional trauma and story about demons skinning her father and killing her uncle (twice!) landing her in a psychiatric hospital. Unluckily for her, the hospital is run by a surgeon who’s been researching the boxes for years, using his patients as guinea pigs. Meanwhile, a message from her father (see above) entreats her to open the door to Hell, which turns out to be a bunch of lonely corridors and matte paintings.
From the first shot, we’re led to understand that the Cenobites are not merely assistants of human explorations of pleasure and pain but former explorers themselves. Each was human before they opened the box, their physical deformities mirroring the extremity of their desires. These traumas in turn drive them to inflict their pain on others. We see this process happening in full with the doctor, who begins as an arrogant jerk too curious for his own good and ends as a cackling, callous-one-liner-tossing monstrosity. In a way it’s like the old idea of sin begetting sin. Anybody who has ever used pornography understands that what was once transgressive soon becomes tedious; you move gradually to more and more extreme stuff until one day you realize you’re waist deep in tartar sauce making love to a hand-puppet and it all feels perfectly normal. The doctor doesn’t begin as a murderer; but it’s only a hop, skip and a jump, morally/mentally speaking, from making out with undead Julia to cutting patients to ribbons.
But that isn’t everybody’s arc, and it’s here that the film gains what resonance it has. The key character isn’t Kirsty but her friend “Tiffany,” another patient in the hospital who doesn’t speak and spends all day solving puzzles. (This makes her kind of a superhero in the Hellraiser universe and I was disappointed when she didn’t return for the sequel.) Anyway, Tiffany is dealing with the trauma of being abandoned at the hospital by her mother, which roughly mirrors Kirsty’s pain and guilt over her parental losses (and near-rape by Frank). Both Tiffany and Kirsty find Hell as a series of mirrors, forcing them to honestly confront the pain they’ve gone through. They’re not truly able to fight past it until Kirsty realizes the truth of the Cenobites, showing that even their Hell is not forever. In its own strange, poorly written way, the film conveys a powerful hope as the antidote to its predecessor’s nihilism, while reminding us at the close that not all are ready to embrace that hope, and some may never be.
As seems de rigeur already for the series, these ideas are conveyed through imagery and plot turns more than anything else. Despite the theatricality of the sets and the simplicity of the filmmaking, Hellraiser feels like the most purely cinematic of any horror franchise I’ve experienced. It’s all visual, which goes back to the original’s suggestion that we in the audience are the ultimate explorers of the furthest reaches of horror. If so, well… onward into the jungle.