So far, I’ve reviewed my way through the first eight installments of the Hellraiser franchise. I hit some shit along the way, but I think the grade point average of the series remains pretty exemplary, with Hellworld being the bottom of the barrel. Of course, I that’s where I stopped. They’ve made two more Hellraiser flicks since Hellworld and they’re… not very popular. And that’s a generous way of saying it.
Director: Victor Garcia
Writers: Gary J. Tunnicliffe (story and screenplay by), Clive Barker (based on characters created by)
Stars: Steven Brand, Nick Eversman, Tracey Fairaway
A year ago, teens Steven (Nick Eversman) and Nico (Jay Gillespie) went missing while on a pleasure binge in Mexico. Their families have gotten together for a night of remembrance when suddenly Steven returns, battered and terrified. Trapped in the house by unseen forces, the families try to figure out what happened to Steven, whether Nico is dead or alive, and what a strange puzzle box has to do with everything.
Okay, so some folks were surprised at how forgiving I was toward the direct-to-video era of the series. Truth is, I think Inferno, Hellseeker and to a lesser extent Deader are solid Hellraiser stories done in a low-key fashion. Hellworld was the only one I wrote off as worthless garbage. Still, I kept an open mind throughout the DTV era and I feel like my optimism was rewarded; I really do think some of those flicks are very good.
But I drew the line at the ninth film in the series, Revelations, because the history BEHIND the making of the movie was so negative it overshadowed the movie itself. It’s an interesting/infuriating tale and I’d recommend at least giving it a Wikipedia read, but the short of it is that Dimension made the movie in a couple of weeks for no other reason than to keep the Hellraiser rights from reverting back to Clive Barker. They pumped out a movie as quickly and as cheaply as possible for all the wrong reasons. But the most notorious offense that has kept folks away from Revelations?
No Doug Bradley.
This is where the "cheap" part comes into play. They offered Bradley, who had played Pinhead for eight films straight, a paycheck he described as the equivalent of "a new refrigerator" and turned down the role. I mean, damn. This is a guy who read the script to Hellworld and still did the flick. If he turned your movie down because you offered him an insulting amount of money to be in it, then you really fucked up.
So all those bad vibes have hovered around Revelations since its release and I’ve just never been motivated to see it. Well, until now, when a friend basically sent me his copy and said "when you have a couple free hours on the weekend, why the fuck not?" It’s currently 4pm on a Saturday, so why the fuck not?
Putting aside all of the real-world bad buzz that poisoned this film before and after its release, what is the objective measure of Revelations as a Hellraiser story?
It’s really not that bad. Jeez, it’s not even the worst film in the series (that’s still Hellworld).
While the reasons for making this movie were wrong, the people actually tasked with making it clearly had a love for the Hellraiser mythology. Writer Gary Tunnicliffe mines inspiration from the original Hellraiser film as well as the source novella, The Hellbound Heart, and for a movie produced strictly to maintain intellectual property rights, it is much better than it has any business being.
The script takes much from Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, as the plot involves one character resurrecting another by feeding them freshly spilt blood. Pinhead and the Cenobites, naturally, aren’t happy about one of their prisoners escaping and pursue the teens. While it sounds like a boring rehash, it’s done in a way that doesn’t eat up as much of the plot so as to be the ongoing focus. Rather, it’s just a way of explaining how one character escaped the Cenobites while using established Hellraiser logic.
Other elements from the earliest films in the series are used which had been more or less absent from the DTV series. For instance, a Puzzle Guardian appears in the form of a shaggy hobo (Daniel Buran), and while we’d seen peddlers hocking the Lament Configuration in some recent movies, this specific incarnation of the Puzzle Guardian hadn’t been seen since, I want to say, Hell on Earth.
There are also some new angles employed in Revelations which I wasn’t expecting because, dude, "filmed in two weeks." Director Victor Garcia portrays the Schism (that bluish, dilapidated room full of hooks and chains the Cenobites always arrive in) as a dimension parallel to our own, something that was described in the original Clive Barker novella but never visually executed this well before. Throughout the film, the setting will toggle between the family house and the Schism, but characters will be seen standing in the other worlds unaware of each other, or Pinhead will be shown listening in on conversations happening in the parallel universe. It’s done really well, and again, gets the idea across better than any of the previous installments.
Also, I want to say that this is a Hellraiser movie that is only interested in being a Hellraiser movie and we haven’t had that in DECADES. I’m not saying that automatically makes it a great movie or even better than most of the other sequels, but it’s a sincerity that I appreciate.
I mean, all the sequels following Hellbound have been "Hellraiser mixed with [INSERT OTHER HORROR MOVIE]". Hell on Earth had Pinhead dropping quips and going full Freddy Krueger. Bloodline was a bad Interview with the Vampire knock-off. Inferno was totally trying to ape Seven. Hellseeker and Deader had their visual aesthetic ripped directly from Jacob’s Ladder. And wretched little Hellworld was a mix of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare with Scream and we’re all embarrassed about that one.
But Revelations is… just a Hellraiser movie. It isn’t trying to mix in ideas from other horror films to give it a gimmick, but takes all of its cues from the first two installments in the series, which were the purest expressions of the storyline. While this doesn’t make Revelations the most interesting flick in the franchise, at least it isn’t using other movies as a crutch.
Tonally, Revelations has the right idea, mixing the romance and torture you’d expect from a Hellraiser movie. In some ways, it’s more daring than most of the other installments in the series. It features erotic taboos like sibling incest and violence taboos like infanticide and is uncompromising in where to set the boundaries. In that manner, it’s less "safe" than some of the more popular Hellraiser sequels, like Hell on Earth, and may give you more of a shock. And speaking of "uncompromising," the ending is one of the bleakest in the whole series.
But holy fucking shit this movie is SO GODDAMN CHEAP!
And that’s where it really falters. There were good intentions on the part of the creative team (not the producers) and if time and budget had been properly accounted for, this might have been one of the best DTV Hellraiser sequels. But as it stands, the good intentions are constantly at battle with the slender resources and I think everybody walked away a loser on this one.
The majority of the film takes place inside the family’s house, and even then, they pretty much stick to the kitchen and the living room (with a brief detour to a bedroom). The movie is nonlinear, as the intercut flashbacks to Steven and Nico’s trip to Mexico gradually portions out the "revelations" this movie is titled after (including a so-so twist during the climax). While the brief glimpses of Mexican bars and alleyways will alleviate some of your claustrophobia, it still isn’t enough. So much of the movie is stuck in that damn living room and you’re going to get sick of it.
Other tricks are employed to save money, up to and including filming parts of the movie on a camcorder and flirting with a "found footage" angle. It isn’t too much of the movie, thankfully, but the camcorder stuff is so pointless you can tell that it was added as a means to pinch pennies.
As for the special effects… Hey, they made it out of this thing pretty clean. Aside from a bad CG glow when the Lament Configuration is solved, nearly everything you see is practical and it looks good enough, I think. What doesn’t work are the Cenobites and they deserve a paragraph or two of their own.
We only get three of them. First is Female Chatterer (Jolene Anderson) who is just one of the Wire Twins from Inferno with a slight modification on her face to give her the Chatterer gimmick. There have been so many different Chatterers throughout the franchise (the original Chatterer I/II, the Chatter Beast, Torso, Chatterer III, now Female Chatterer) that I’m wondering if there’s some significance to it. Like are they some sort of discipline within the Cenobites? A subgroup? More likely, it was done to save money. Oh, you better believe it was done to save money.
Second is Pseudo (Jay Gillispie), a new recruit Cenobite that takes after Pinhead, featuring the same nails-in-the-skull motif. He’s more story-oriented and you actually get to see a Cenobite being indoctrinated into the trade, undergoing a sort of baptism or whatever. He’s not so bad.
And then there’s Pinhead (played by Stephen Smith Collins, voiced by Fred Tatasciore) and… Whew. Look, when someone has played a character exclusively for several decades and eight movies, it can be REALLY hard letting go when it’s time to recast. Putting aside the REASON Doug Bradley was recast (cheap cheap cheap), there was still the potential that they could find a new actor to fit the bill. But this shit was filmed in two weeks, so that didn’t happen.
Stephen Smith Collins just doesn’t look the part. And it isn’t because he doesn’t look exactly like Bradley, it’s because he just doesn’t have the sort of intimidating visual presence needed to play the character. He looks like a dude in a Pinhead Halloween costume (funny, because that’s sort of what Pseudo is supposed to be and he comes off much better than the actual Pinhead in this movie). Fred Tatasciore is a professional voice actor and gets a lot of work in cartoons; he plays the Hulk in nearly all Marvel shows and video games. He tries his best to mimic Doug Bradley’s voice, but it just doesn’t work.
And I guess that’s what really stinks about Pinhead in this movie. I mean, when Jackie Earl Haley replaced Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, it was because Englund retired of his own volition. And when Haley took on the role, he maintained superficial cohesion with Englund, but his make-up and performance tried to go for distinctions in the creative process. Collins and Tatasciore are trying to copy Bradley; impersonate him. And what we get from that is a guy trying to look like him dubbed by a guy trying to sound like him and the end result is awful. Just awful.
Beyond that, the most substantial fault of Revelations is that it meanders. It goes on and on and on and you don’t know where it’s trying to go or what any of the characters are aiming for. The found footage bullshit that opens the movie spoils so many of the later plot points that are supposed to be "revelations" that the story winds up going through the motions, revealing stuff to the characters that the audience has been aware of since the opening credits.
And while the other sequels are guilty of copying styles from other horror films, at least they HAD styles. Garcia’s approach, aside from his handling of the Schism, is almost entirely workmanlike and unambitious. I know two weeks isn’t much, and he did what he could, but the movie looks like a soap opera much of the time (especially during the drawn out sequence where the families are held hostage at gunpoint in that goddamn living room).
Yeah, I really got negative at the end, here. But to circle back around, Revelations isn’t the worst film in the series. In fact, you can cherry pick scenes and ideas from it that are actually pretty good. They just don’t coalesce into a good film by any metric, and the bad choices are so distracting you may not even notice the finer points. Honestly, I think I’m being kinder to the film than most people you’ll meet who have seen it. For all the bad reasons it was made, it DOES try and there’s a merit in that. I’d say to at least give it a shot, even if Doug Bradley isn’t in it. You might like some of what you see.