The fifth film in the Hellraiser franchise also marked the beginning of the “straight-to-video era” of the series. The budgets are smaller, the stories more intimate and you can say goodbye to anything approaching the word “epic”. I hope you got that out of your system with Bloodline.
This cost-cutting approach has led to some fairly polarized responses from both casual horror fans and Hellraiser enthusiasts. I think we’re up to six straight-to-video films now and most of them are really bad (and the last two don’t even have Doug Bradley in them). So it’s easy to say that all these movies are total shit. But let’s not forget that the Hellraiser franchise started with a small scale, intimate story, so I don’t think it’s fair to cast all these movies into the dumpster just because the budget and scope has been dialed back. At the very least, the first few straight-to-video flicks, beginning with Inferno, are actually pretty watchable.
Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer) is a bad cop and an even worse husband. While investigating a crime scene of a gruesome murder, Thorne comes across a strange puzzle box and the severed finger of a child, whom forensics believes is still alive. The further Thorne digs into the case, the more he finds his personal life and those he cares about become involved. At the scene of each crime he discovers another finger and with each passing murder his grip on his sanity slowly fades. Strange mutilated creatures follow him wherever he goes, all leading up to his confrontation with the man behind the murders: The enigmatic “Engineer”.
In my discussions within the horror community, I’ve found that those who enjoyed Inferno had read the Hellraiser comic book series, while those who hated it had never even heard of them. A generalization, to be sure, but it seemed to come up a lot.
The Hellraiser comic from Marvel’s Epic imprint was an anthology series with tales all revolving around the theme of unwholesome desires leading people to summon the Cenobites through various puzzles (both literal and more metaphysical). Pinhead scarcely appeared in the series and the stories were far more personal and low-key than the rather epic scope of films such as Hellbound, Hell on Earth and Bloodline.
The comic took more cues from the first Hellraiser, which was a very personal story about lust and infidelity. The “straight-to-video era” of the Hellraiser franchise essentially carries on the spirit of the comics, with very atmospheric and introspective horror stories. So naturally, they appeal more to the members of the fandom who have read the comics and less to those who are only acquainted with the very over-the-top and special effects driven movies.
From what I understand, Inferno was initially written as a film not even remotely associated with the Hellraiser franchise and simply wound-up with a few rewrites and the brand name slapped on it in order to make it sell. This may sound extremely sketchy, and I mean it definitely is, but the gimmick… kinda works?
Our “protagonist”, Detective Thorne, is an all-around scumbag and rather hard to like. So you aren’t really left feeling much sympathy when terrible things begin to happen to him. I dug this approach, since it left me rooting for the Cenobites and other nasty things to get him. The progression of the story is tense, as Thorne starts spiraling into his own mania, seeing a mysterious Cenobite taunting him at every crime scene. The reveal of the Engineer’s identity at the finale is nicely done, and while the morality lesson is more than a little heavy-handed, it holds up well with the purpose of the story.
At the risk of ruining the ending (you have the power to stop reading; it’s on you!), the twist offers a different look at the Hell of the Hellraiser mythos that’s newer to the film series. It isn’t all labyrinths and chains and hooks or anything so on-the-nose. This Hell is much more surreal and inescapable, trapping a character forever in a familiar place that still manages to isolate them for eternity. It speaks to the lower budget of the film, but works in a fresh angle.
As for the Cenobites, we have a really great lineup this time around. Firstly, don’t get too excited at the name “Engineer”. The giant worm-monster from the original Hellraiser is not the same as this Engineer, sorry. He’s been in the more recent Hellraiser comics from Boom Studios (which are really good), so you can get your worm-man fix there.
Pinhead (Doug Bradley) appears, as usual, though they seem to have messed up his vocal effects, not pitching it down as much as they’re supposed to (making his voice sound a bit off). Many complain that Pinhead doesn’t appear enough in this movie, but if you go back to the original Hellraiser, he may actually have more screen time here than he did there. And anyway, the Hellraiser series was never supposed to be ABOUT Pinhead, and the movies that focus too much on him tend to miss the point. While I would’ve liked a bit more of him in this film, sure, I don’t want to see another film go full Bloodline ever again.
Other Cenobites include the Wire Twins (Lynn Speier and Patricia Kara), two blind, leather-clad dominatrixes with wires connecting their chins to their chests. They’re actually a nice physical representation of the pleasure/pain parallel that’s a standard of the series. Next, there’s my favorite Cenobite of the film, the chattering Torso (Mike J. Regan). Just to address any misconceptions, Torso is not supposed to be the Chatterer from the first two films. According to his bio, he was a creation of the Chatterer, though.
Inferno manages to weave a great supernatural murder-mystery into the tapestry of the Hellraiser mythos. Some might hate it because it isn’t a nonstop slaughterfest, but if you can get over the fact that it tries to be more of an atmospheric piece and less of a cornball slasher reject, you might actually enjoy yourself. Watch out for some rather irritating “MTV”-esque moments and a pair of ridiculous ninja cowboys, though.