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Blu-ray Review: Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box

THE FILMS 

“The box. You opened it. We came.”

Stephen King was once quoted as saying: “I have seen the future of horror… his name is Clive Barker.” That future became reality when, in 1987, Barker unleashed his directorial debut Hellraiser – launching a hit franchise and creating an instant horror icon in the formidable figure of Pinhead. Barker’s original Hellraiser, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, follows Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) as she comes head-to-head with the Cenobites – demonic beings from another realm who are intent on reclaiming the soul of her deviant Uncle Frank. Picking up immediately after the events of the original Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II finds Kirsty detained at a psychiatric institute and under the care of Phillip Channard, a doctor who abuses his position to realise his own dark aims. In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, a reporter investigating a mysterious death at a nightclub finds herself in the way of Pinhead and the Cenobites, who plan to bring their horrifying world into our own.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_6 As is stated on the massive supplemental package included on this beautiful release from Arrow Video, Hellraiser, at its start, seemed like the least likely horror film to spawn a franchise for many reasons — the first of those being the extremely odd and daring subject matter. Though Hellraiser was released in the ‘80s – the very decade which saw the first installments in what would become major horror franchises – Hellraiser wasn’t simply about a maniac with an unforgettable appearance mowing down the innocent. Halloween, though made in 1978, officially became a franchise in 1981 when its sequel was released; many would argue that, though it was not the first official slasher film ever made, it was the first that would kick-start the genre and inspire a storm of imitators, which directly led to the creation of the Friday the 13th franchise. But whether you’re talking about a legitimately classy film like Halloween, or a slice of popcorn escapism like Friday the 13th, neither film would be fairly labeled as complex. Their concepts could be broken down into one sentence.

Hellraiser‘s couldn’t. Because Hellraiser was sicker, slimier, angrier, and more depraved. On its surface it was about a mysterious puzzle box that had the power to open the gates of hell and allow demons (to some, angels to others) to emerge. But below that it was about sexual depravity, about the limits one kind of individual wanted to reach. It was about finding that straddling line between pain and pleasure. And honestly, it introduced certain taboos into the mainstream (well, the semi-mainstream) that had never been discussed in such a public way. Unless you had read director Clive Barker’s writing at that point. The mastermind behind “The Hellbound Heart,” which was later fleshed out into the screenplay for Hellraiser, had been having that discussion for years.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_11Following the groundbreaking original film, eight sequels (!) would eventually follow, more and more shifting Pinhead – originally just one of many demons (called Cenobites) who was never intended to be the focal point – into the limelight. And, as usually was the case, his character would appear in each subsequent decreasing entry, soon becoming DTV franchise fodder like Puppetmaster and the Corn kids. Like many other horror franchises, how they play out in their latter entries seldom resemble how they looked in their earliest days. In the first Hellraiser, Pinhead appears fleetingly – not the main antagonist, but a monster whom one must face when seeking the ultimate pleasure. By the final entry (at least the final one with Bradley), Pinhead had become a ghost haunting a website (or something) and swinging machetes into teens’ necks, cutting their heads off with a snarl. (Seriously.) He became the very thing Barker hadn’t intended, as Pinhead’s introduction into pop culture grouped his Hellraiser in with all the other horror properties…where it didn’t belong.

Say, speaking of beginnings…

hellraiser_scarlet_box_2Hellraiser – 4/5. Made with a very low budget, Hellraiser was the horror film no one was expecting. By the time its release year of 1987 rolled around, the Friday the 13th franchise was already on its seventh entry; Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, their fifth. And already their concepts were starting to wear thin. Clive Barker, after having had no success with a handful of short experimental films based on his own short stories, wrote and directed the ’87 horror cheapie about a shaky marriage with a history of familial infidelity and a desire for a new beginning, both shaken by the reappearance of a familiar face. (Well, kind of.) Not at all your typical ’80s horror (despite the hero being a plucky teen girl, played by Ashley Laurence), Hellraiser was about the limits of desire, the consequences of self-destructive behavior, and the lengths one will go for what they perceive to be love. The faces remain the same in Hellraiser, but the real faces behind them often change. Larry Cotton (Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have moved back to Larry’s old family home (never given a specific location, but one which was originally meant to be London), the former immediate scene of Larry’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman) having opened the puzzle box and been ripped apart by the Cenobites for his troubles. It’s there, following a bit of unexplained bloody voodoo, that Frank is resurrected as a slimy skinless humanoid, whom Julia discovers living in the attic. Being that Frank and Julia had engaged in a bit of coitus prior to her wedding to Larry, she still desires him (either emotionally or sexually), so when Frank orders her to bring him blood by any means necessary in an effort to continue reforming his body, Julia agrees. But it’s when Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Laurence) comes to visit that Julie and Frank’s scheme gets a little complicated.

It goes without saying that the first Hellraiser is the best in the series, though many fans would point to its immediate sequel, Hellbound, as the superior entry (more on that in a bit). Celebrated for its inventive practical effects in the same way as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hellraiser plays out like a doomed romance, with Julia becoming a murderess in an effort to reform Frank in hopes that they would again be together. In spite of all the grime and grit and spilled blood, it’s actually a sad story – a Greek tragedy that unfolds with equal levels Shakespearean drama and EC Comics irony. And yes, despite the original intention for Julia to actually be seen as the main villain and the takeaway face of Hellraiser, it would be Doug Bradley as Pinhead who would inadvertently walk away with the final association with the Hellraiser brand. His impressive appearance, along with fellow Cenobites Chatterer, Butterball, and “Female Cenobite” (she got the short stick in the names department), though limited to roughly ten minutes, would be powerful and effective enough to not only spawn a franchise but inherit the mantle of the main villain going forward.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_5Hellbound: Hellraiser II – 3.5/5. Call it the return of New World Pictures as financier, or the short amount of time between films, or the returning of much of the creative force (sans Clive Barker, who only provided a rough outline of the story), Hellbound: Hellraiser II feels like not just a natural sequel, but the second half of the overall Hellraiser story. Following Uncle Frank and Julia’s comeuppance, Kirsty, understandably, now finds herself a patient at the Channard Institute for the mentally ill as police try to piece together what exactly happened in that house. The problem is Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who it seems harbors the same blood-thirsty need for the next level of passion-meets-pain, and who has been researching the puzzle box for years (and who seriously looks like Old Tom Hardy). In one of the most uncomfortable scenes to ever appear in a horror film, which sees a mentally ill patient slicing himself with a straight razor to kill the bugs he believes are crawling all over him, his torrential blood flow leaks onto the stolen mattress on which Julia had perished in the previous film, resurrecting her, and she becomes Channard’s guide directly into the pits of Hell. Meanwhile, Kirsty does stuff involving a mute girl at the hospital who just so happens to really enjoy puzzles and for their troubles they also end up in Hell.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_9Aesthetically, Hellbound really does play out like a natural second half, but in doing so also becomes somewhat lost in its own story. Unsure of what it really wants to be, it sacrifices some of its sexual daringness in favor of focusing much of its journey on its descent into hell, where Kirsty believes her father to be, and who’s in need of rescue following a dream in which he appeared to her in skinless form, scrawling bloodily on the wall, “I AM IN HELL HELP ME.” Julia (a returning Clare Higgins) is certainly sexier and more diabolical, but compared to the conflicted iteration of herself in the first film, she comes off less interesting. Once she’s reborn and her skinless ass groped by Dr. Channard, she’s given absolutely nothing to do except walk around and grin big.

By this time it had become apparent that Doug Bradley’s Pinhead was the star, and though his screen time in the makeup isn’t necessarily increased, his character is fleshed out, being ret-conned as a former British soldier during the first World War who opens the puzzle box and subsequently becomes the pointy-faced demon we all know and love. Hellbound boasts some interesting and impressive visuals from first-time director Tony Randel, taking over for Barker, but also a few asinine “twists” – such as “Satan” being a gigantic puzzle box which shoots lasers, or — my favorite  — Frank revealing himself as the one who appeared to Kirsty and wrote her the bloody note, all in an effort to lure her into hell so they could bang.

This was Frank’s big idea.

Way to go Frank.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_8Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth – 2/5. And it’s with Hellraiser’s third film that Pinhead is made the front-and-center villain, receiving a boost in screen time and a copy of Freddy Krueger’s Official Guide to Awful Observational Puns. Screenwriter Peter Atkins, who returns from duties on Hellbound, again scripts this entry – one that he admits isn’t very far removed from the original intention, but who is also happy to admit that the new rights holders of the Hellraiser franchise wanted different things from what came before. Basically, they wanted their own horror villain to turn into a sadistic sidesplitting bad guy to lure in a different kind of audience (the kind who thought Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was just a total hoot). They got their wish.

Hellraiser III focuses on a reporter named Joey Summerskill who stumbles ass backwards into a Pinhead-like situation after witnessing a poor guy stabbed with rusty chains being wheeled into an operating room one night at the hospital, putting her directly on the bloody path of Pinhead, recently freed from a statue (?) by a New York playboy who fancies himself worthy of sitting at the right hand of the king of Hell. (He’s basically the new Julia, only intensely punchable.) If there’s a reason that logline sounds stupid, it’s because it is. Very much so. Except for watching Hellraiser III turn a once-frightening demon into a pun-dropping pain in the ass who – no bullshit – turns people into Cenobites that have cameras in their heads or can fire CDs like saw blades – this second sequel doesn’t offer much depth, daringness, or really anything at all besides yet another example of diminishing returns. Pinhead’s sad transition into Freddy Krueger-lite was inevitably completed, aided by a more than willing Anthony Hickox (the Waxworks series), stepping into the director’s chair for Tony Randel, who opted not to return.

hellraiser_scarlet_box_12Dimension Films would maintain their hold on the franchise, turning out one entry after another, but after the spectacular failure that would be Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (credited to phantom director Alan Smithee, which in movie talk means RUN), ironically, non-Hellraiser related horror scripts would be picked up by the production house, rewritten to include Pinhead and Hellraiser elements, and would then actually offer far more solid one-offs than the series’ earlier official sequels. (I’ll defend Scott Derrickson’s Hellraiser: Inferno from now until the end of time – the first sequel to go direct to video, but the best since the original.) The Hellraiser franchise continues with this year’s Hellraiser: Judgment…which will be the tenth film and the second subsequent sequel on which Doug Bradley has passed – and that’s saying something.

THE PICTURE

hellraiser_scarlet_box_1Hellraiser — 4/5.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II — 4.5/5.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth — 3.5/4.

The best looking feature on the set would be Hellbound: Hellraiser II, offering a slightly more attractive picture than Barker’s slightly blown out original. (This becomes most apparent during Hellbound, which utilizes several scenes lifted from the previous film.) The first two films boast excellent clarity, however, and the grain field never becomes too overwhelming. The first Hellraiser is lit almost like a neo-noir film, utilizing lots of shadows and light filtering in through broken walls. Surprisingly, despite its reputation, Hellraiser III offers the weakest presentation, being that it was financed by a somewhat major studio and is also obviously the newest title. While it also does offer a fair amount of clarity, it’s not on par with its lesser-budgeted predecessors. What it does offer, however, is a tremendous array of color, which is most evident during the night club scenes or the carnage-ridden finale.

 THE SOUND 4/5

hellraiser_scarlet_box_13All three flicks match each other in terms of clear and well-presented dialogue, as well as the usual grit and grime associated with Hellraiser bloodletting. The musical score by Christopher Young sounds great on the first, but excellent on the second, allowing his masterpiece of deranged carnival music and gothic organs to echo through the literal caverns of Hell. The score on the third by Randy Miller was a fairly pedestrian effort — used more for utilitarian purposes rather than emotive ones, which pretty much sums up the production’s approach in general.

 THE SUPPLEMENTS 5/5

hellraiser_scarlet_box_10On the vintage featurette Hellraiser: Resurrection, Clive Barker begins the proceedings by saying, “This is the last time I’m going to talk about this son-of-a-bitch movie,” which I guess then explains Barker’s absence from the newer Hellraiser exploratory projects included on this release, mostly the feature-length two-part Leviathan documentaries which appear on the first two discs, and which explore the first two entries in the saga. Leviathan stands way out from all the other supplements as being the definitive exploration of the two most well-regarded Hellraiser entries. The first part clocks in at 90 minutes, but the second runs a staggering two hours, and covers mostly every bit about the making of the films you could ever want. Barker and Ashley Laurence are missing in action, but everyone else involved in major capacities in the the first two films are present to share their memories. One thing you’re certain to come away from the Leviathan features is that screenwriter Peter Atkins is the most likable man alive. (One minor criticism: the rejected musical score by Coil is discussed, and even though composer Christopher Young appears, his two scores seem to go under-discussed.)

The remaining supplements are a combination of existing featurettes and ones newly produced by Arrow for this release. Many supplements on the previous Anchor Bay Blu-ray are sadly missing in action, though I imagine most of them were covered one way or the other in Leviathan.

The complete list of special features is as follows:

4-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

  • Brand new 2K restorations of Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
  • Uncompressed PCM Stereo 2.0 and Lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound for Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound for Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for all three films
  • Limited Edition bonus disc
  • Exclusive 200-page hardback book with new writing from Clive Barker archivists Phil and Sarah Stokes
    20-page booklet featuring never-before-seen original Hellraiser concept art
  • Limited Edition packaging with new artwork from Gilles Vranckx
  • Set of 5 exclusive art cards
  • Fold-out reversible poster

DISC 1 – HELLRAISER

  • Brand new 2K restoration approved by director of photography Robin Vidgeon
  • Audio commentary with writer/director Clive Barker
  • Audio commentary with Barker and actress Ashley Laurence
  • Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser – brand new version of the definitive documentary on the making of Hellraiser, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members
  • Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellraiser – actor Sean Chapman talks candidly about playing the character of Frank Cotton in Barker’s original
  • Soundtrack Hell: The Story of the Abandoned Coil Score – Coil member Stephen Thrower on the Hellraiser score that almost was
  • Hellraiser: Resurrection – vintage featurette including interviews with Clive Barker, actors Doug Bradley and Ashley Laurence, special make-up effects artist Bob Keen and others
  • Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser
  • Original EPK featuring on-set interviews with cast and crew
  • Draft Screenplays [BD-ROM content]
  • Trailers and TV Spots
  • Image Gallery

DISC 2 – HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II

  • Brand new 2K restoration approved by director of photography Robin Vidgeon
  • Audio Commentary with director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins
  • Audio Commentary with Randel, Atkins and actress Ashley Laurence
  • Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II – brand new version of the definitive documentary on the making of Hellbound, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members
  • Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellbound – actor Sean Chapman talks about reprising the role of Frank Cotton in the first Hellraiser sequel
  • Surgeon Scene – the home video world premiere of this legendary, never before-seen excised sequence from Hellbound, sourced from a VHS workprint
  • Lost in the Labyrinth – vintage featurette including interviews with Barker, Randel, Keen, Atkins and others
    Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • On-set interview with Clive Barker
  • On-set interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind-the-Scenes Footage
  • Rare and unseen storyboards
  • Draft Screenplay [BD-ROM content]
  • Trailers and TV Spots
  • Image Gallery

DISC 3 – HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH

  • Brand new 2K restoration of the Original Theatrical Version [93 mins]
  • Alternate Unrated Version [97 mins]
  • Brand new audio commentary with writer Peter Atkins
  • Audio commentary with director Anthony Hickox and Doug Bradley
  • Hell on Earth: The Story of Hellraiser III – making-of documentary featuring interviews with Atkins, Keen and actor Ken Carpenter
  • Terri’s Tales – brand new interview with actress Paula Marshall
  • Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
  • Raising Hell on Earth – archival interview with Hickox
  • On-set interviews with Barker and Bradley
  • Never-before-seen Hellraiser III SFX dailies
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Image Gallery
  • Hellraiser III comic book adaptation [Disc gallery]

DISC 4 – THE CLIVE BARKER LEGACY – LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE

  • Clive Barker short films Salomé and The Forbidden
  • Books of Blood & Beyond: The Literary Works of Clive Barker – horror author David Gatward provides a tour through Barker’s written work, from the first Books of Blood to the recent The Scarlet Gospels
  • Hellraiser: Evolutions – a brand new documentary looking at the evolution of the hit horror franchise and its enduring legacy, featuring interviews with Scott Derrickson (director, Hellraiser: Inferno), Rick Bota (director, Hellraiser: Hellseeker, Deader and Hellworld), Stuart Gordon (director, Re-Animator, From Beyond) and others
  • The Hellraiser Chronicles: A Question of Faith – short film
  • 200-PAGE BOOK – ‘DAMNATION GAMES’ – LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE: Exclusive 200-page hardback book with new writing on Hellraiser and the Barker universe from Barker archivists Phil and Sarah Stokes – including chapters looking at Barker’s early work, the genesis and production of the first 3 films in the Hellraiser series and much more, all illustrated with stills and rare material from the Barker archive

 OVERALL 4.5/5

hellraiser_scarlet_box_blu-ray_covArrow released this handsome set only back in December, but it’s already selling out fast. Being that this is a limited edition, fans of the Hellraiser series shouldn’t hesitate in the least to pick this up. The attention paid to the first two films alone blow any previous releases, in any region, entirely out of the water. And that Hellraiser III was shown any love at all is also worth applauding, being that it just ain’t that good. Hardcore fans of the series likely already have this, but if somehow said fans went all this time without knowing this was available, don’t miss your chance to nab yourself a set before it’s gone forever. And when you do, you can peel back the lid of this set, see all the love and care that went into it, and say, “The box. I opened it. I came.” (How’s that for an unexpectedly gross ending?)

(Thanks to Mondo Digital for the screen grabs.)

THE DISTRIBUTORS

Arrow Films, an all-rights multi-platform distributor of feature films and TV series who specialize in releasing some of the best content from around the world to UK customers and beyond, are now providing domestic releases in North America through MVD Entertainment. Arrow’s global reputation as one of the finest labels in the world has come about through consistent high quality product and a focus on fan-based products always at its core. 

MVD Entertainment Group is a full service music and movie distribution firm, exclusively representing thousands of audio and visual products for DVD, Bluray, CD, vinyl, and digital rights, worldwide. “Serving Artists and Audiences” is MVD’s purpose statement; it represents a commitment to the interests of the musicians, filmmakers, record labels, producers, managers, and every link in the supply chain. MVD continues to look for new and exciting content and sees a bright future in the entertainment business. 


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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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