Killtoberfest #33 was Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, or as I like to call it, Hellraiser IV: In Spaaaaaaaaace, even though most of it is not actually in space, what gives
This is far and away my favorite Hellraiser. This is fascinating to me because it’s also my first “Alan Smithee” movie. That’s not a director’s name, it’s a pseudonym directors use when they want to take their name off a project that is either shameful or not what they intended (or both). Most of the ones I’ve heard about are supposed to be godawful (Ebert has more than a few zero-star reviews of Smithee movies), which makes sense, given that things have to get pretty bad behind the scenes in order for someone to want to disassociate themselves so completely from the finished project. And indeed, reading about the changes the studio made suggest that Hellraiser IV might have been a really good movie (and not just a really fun one) had they not interfered. What remains, though, is still the peak of what I think the series can be.
There are two big reasons why this movie is so much fun. The first is the movie’s broad scope. One of the chief pleasures of the Hellraiser series is how many directions they can take it in. I only watched 1 through 5 this year, but they ranged from straight horror to dark fantasy to sci-fi epic to noir, and I can tell by glancing at the descriptions for the rest that there’s more variety to be found there (I’m sorely disappointed I didn’t get to the one about people getting sucked into a video game… FROM HELL). The nature of the series’ villains, pan-dimensional beings drawn to wherever extreme desires are felt, allows for a huge amount of leeway. Hellraiser V, for instance, is about as small in scope as you can possibly get, about one person’s interior struggle over the course of a couple of days.
Bloodline, on the other hand, is about as large in scope as you could possibly get, spanning three generations over a centuries-long battle against the demons. We get about an act or so in each of three time periods–the future in space (sorry: spaaaaace), Enlightenment-era France, and present day (connecting to the end of the third film). Because the film is broken up into what are essentially three separate stories (plus a framing device), the issues that plague the series (too little character development, too much repetition) become lessened, or at least more excusable. They become less like traditional narratives and more like fairy tales about the dangers of temptation.
The second reason the movie is fun is that, alone among all the Hellraisers, it comes up with a strong, active protagonist with a motivated conflict against Pinhead and the other demons. There’s actually three protagonists, but it’s a generational struggle as told by the last of them (in SPAAACE), so they all kinda feel like one guy. He’s got a very good reason to dislike the demons: it’s his ancestor who set them free. A brilliant puzzlemaker in the 18th century, Marchand is commissioned to build a puzzle box to exacting specifications by a wealthy man who then turns around and uses it to summon a demon into the body of a murdered woman. In modern times, his descendant, an architect, designs a new office building but dreams of a giant puzzle box made of light. And in the future, the last of the bloodline designs a space station, only to force his crew to abandon it so he can attempt to finish the long “game” his family has been playing with Pinhead and the other Cenobites (who have tried to force the Marchands to open up a much larger gateway to Hell). The intricacy of the plotting and the scope of the conflict, along with the descendants’ motivation to defeat the Cenobites they feel responsible for finally gives the series a meaningful conflict that is not “hapless protagonist stumbles upon demons and tries to survive.”
These segments take the series in a new direction thematically as well. Each of the segments is about humanity’s shifting negotiations between faith and rationality. Even the frame story is constructed as a conflict between Marchand’s belief in these supernatural experiences and the investigating soldier’s skepticism.
The first story, set during the Enlightenment, suggests that a secular view of the universe combines a thirst for scientific exploration of the unknown with the lack of any moral framework required to curtail those explorations. Hence the spoiled feast, the murdered woman–earthly pleasures turned to ruin by surfeit of desire and the dearth of moral boundaries. The demon, Angelique, is the first of many denizens of Hell who will be summoned to fill these extreme human needs.
The second, set during the present day, is the weakest of the three (it runs a little long, and is also not in SPAAAACE). The focus here is twofold. First, the conflict between Angelique and Pinhead over their means of manipulation–Angelique would seduce, while Pinhead prefers brute force. Either way works, because the other point is that nobody is prepared for the Cenobites nowadays. The victims in this segment are minor characters–a pair of security guards, a businessman–who are not cautious enough to avoid being killed. Marchand himself doesn’t really understand what’s going on. The age of rationality is in full swing and nobody believes, or has a framework (religious or otherwise) in which to understand what’s going on.
In the third narrative, set in the future, we see the importance of striking a balance between scientific knowledge and respect for the unknown. This Marchand can perform rituals, but he’s smart enough to use a robot to do it. Meanwhile the Aliens-esque band of soldiers are all wiped out because they’re too literal minded to accept the outlandish truth about what’s going on. In the end, you can’t kill demons with laser guns. The previous sentence is awesomely ridiculous and completely true, encapsulating why I really enjoyed this movie. More Hellraisers like this, please.
Of course, there weren’t any more like this, as far as I know. This was the last theatrical release for the series, and judging by number 5, the DTV entries were all forced to slim down the scope in order to accommodate minimal budgets. The grand narrative of man versus demon, faith versus rationality, France versus SPAAAAACE would never again be continued. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, the high water mark of a troubled series, I salute you. We shall not see your like again.