Hellraiser V: Inferno marks the point where the series officially became a direct-to-video franchise (people claim Bloodlines was released to theaters, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in one). It marks the departure of Clive Barker in any capacity whatsoever other than source of the original movie. It also marks the arrival of a new screenwriter and a new approach to what was, by then, becoming a pretty stale formula. The people behind Bloodlines must have recognized the moldiness of the central concept as well, as they tried to do something a little different with it, then ultimately tried simply to end it by setting up the final battle between Pinhead and those he would rip apart with spiky chains.
But final confrontations have never successfully put down a lucrative horror franchise, and even if public interest in the series was waning, horror fan interest was more than enough to sustain another movie. so what do you do when the previous film killed off your main villain? Well, you thank whatever hell Pinhead comes from that the movie was set in the future, which means you an spend the next hundred years making sequels that take place before that eventual final outcome.
I was set to into part five all ready to think the movie was total garbage. It seems to be a pretty polarizing film, and in my opinion, a fairly well misunderstood and misinterpreted film. I was taken by surprise when I ended up really liking this offbeat entry, both for what it accomplishes and for what it admirably tries to accomplish but fails. Franchise films have to walk that thin line between “same old, same old” and doing something different that is “too different.” Many fans of the Hellraiser series felt that Inferno went to far to the side of “different,” but I think those departures from what is perceived to be the tortured soul of the Hellraiser stories are only superficial. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the closest film in spirit, if not execution, to the original.
Inferno begins with the story of corrupt but not entirely irredeemable Denver cop Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer, Nightbreed) investigating the gruesome murder of an old acquaintance. At the scene of the crime, Thorne finds the now iconic Lament Configuration puzzle box and takes it with him. We soon learn that Thorne’s life is a mess. though he has a nice home, a wife, and a child, he’s also addicted to the dark side of life that his job as a homicide cop exposes him to. Thus he takes drugs, carouses with the healthiest, hottest streetwalkers I’ve seen in a long time, blackmails and abuses people, and isn’t above the occasional frame-up. He’s never truly despicable, though, but rather is simply a man who seems to possess a need to wallow in the filth from time to time. Although he loathes much about he life, he also seems addicted to it. In other words, there is nothing really that keeps him from having a better life; parts of his life are awful because he wants them that way, despite what he may say otehrwise.
Shortly after discovering and accidentally opening the box (though Pinhead maintains that the box is never opened by accident), he finds himself suffering on two different fronts. On the more comprehensible side, he becomes involved with a case in which someone known as The Engineer has kidnapped a child and uses the child’s fingers as a calling call left at the scene of other murders. On the slightly weirder but no less gruesome side, Thorne is suddenly suffering bizarre hallucinations and dreams in which he is stalked and occasionally licked by a pair of semi-faceless female creatures with long black tongues and their friend, the deformed faceless white humanoid with no lower torso. We recognize them as Cenobites, and for the first time in a while, a Hellraiser movie has delivered Cenobites that are truly creepy. Like something straight out of Silent Hill, they seem still to be trying to make up for Camcorder-Head, and this trio is so effective that I say to Hellraiser, “Apology accepted.” I won’t mention Camcorder-Head again.
Needless to say but about to be said anyway, the dreams and the case will become increasingly connected, and it soon looks as if Thorne himself might be committing the murders. He seeks the advice of police psychiatrist played by James Remar, and all I could think of at first was, “Man, I can’t believe it was the fifth movie before James Remar showed up in one of these.” He’s a little more open to the battier end of Thorne’s stories, seeing as he has previous knowledge of the Lament Configuration and what it can supposedly do.
So you may notice that, up until this point, Pinhead has been most noticeable by his absence. This is one of the things that irks a lot of people, but I welcome it with open arms. Although they did some rehabilitation in part four, Pinhead was overexposed and poorly used in subsequent Hellraiser films. Inferno goes the route of being about the tortured soul rather than the torturer, and I thought it was a nice change. Pinhead’s presence looms over everything, since we as viewers know that he has a hand in everything that is happening, but he doesn’t make an actual appearance until the end of the film, where he belongs.
On the surface, this feels like a grim, somewhat averagely written serial killer cop procedural that had a Hellraiser movie grafted onto it to help rental numbers. I think that’s short-chaning the film, though. Another criticism is that the movie gets Pinhead all wrong, presenting him when he appears as sort of a karmic judge who doles out a moral about selfish living. Again, I think this is missing the point of what happens. By part three, Pinhead’s approach to damnation was pretty tired. Someone opens the box, Pinhead shows up to deliver a few lines about flesh, then he shoots the hooked chains into you and tears you apart. There’s no realization of the theory behind what he does, that the punishment should be as exquisite as it it is painful. here was a singular lack of imagination in the chain gag after the first couple times. The way I read part five, everything that happens from the moment Thorne first opens the box is part of Pinhead’s torture of the man. Only instead of just stepping out of some lighting effects and whipping him with chains, Pinhead constructs a scenario in which Thorne is plunged into the depths of everything to which he has an addiction — drugs, a macabre job, corruption — and finally offered a chance at redemption. When he takes it, Pinhead shows up not to deliver a sermon about selfishness, but to reveal that the chance for redemption never existed in the first place. Isn’t that a far worthier form of torture — to send a man to the depths, offer him a chance at salvation, then reveal that salvation is just a mirage — than just falling back on the hook gag again? The gradual temptation and breakdown, the exploitation of weaknesses and vices, allowing a man to wallow in his faults and take a sick pleasure in them (even the child abduction case is the sort of thing that thrills Thorne just as much as it disturbs and disgusts him) even as they’re destroying him — aren’t these the things we expect from Pinhead? Leaving a person with a complete and utter sense of inescapable desolation after giving them a taste of redemption? That is exquisite suffering.
I really liked this one. It’s not a perfect film, but few films are. The acting is generally good, the direction a bit small-scale but competent, and the story is a combination of the fresh and the stale, sometimes smartly delivered, other times awkward. The Engineer case drags on perhaps too long toward an obvious conclusion, and the bizarre kungfu cowboy scene feels like it was edited in from a completely different movie. But the positive outweighs the negative here. This is a much more thoughtful approach to the idea of damnation; you get three genuinely creepy Cenobites; and there are some pretty good setpieces, like Thorne’s greenlit living room with it snowing inside, danglign chains, and his wife and daughter strapped to that rotating slab of stone. And Pinhead is actually a figure of diabolical menace — sort of the “final boss.” It didn’t really make sense to me that every time someone opened the box, they instantly got Pinhead on the line. He is the architect of the pain, leaving it up to the victim to do the actual inflicting — at least until the very end, when the hooked chains come out. He should be, and in this is, the guy to whom you work up. He should be, at least at this point in the series, the guy who shows up at the end to wrap everything up and rob the characters entirely of any hope they may have once had.
It’s nice to get a movie like this, one I go into expecting to hate but end up liking a lot. It’s much better than the other way around, when I expect to love something and it ends up being Saazish. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Pinhead isn’t setting me up, giving me hope just so he can take it away and relish my suffering in part six. Well, I guess I understand those whoa re tempted by the incomprehensible pleasures and pains and pains as pleasures that the Lament Configuration represents, because despite my hesitation, even as I sit here writing this, I am making plans top open the puzzle box hell that is Hellraiser VI.