**/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Kenneth Cranham, Imogen Boorman
screenplay by Peter Atkins
directed by Tony Randel
by Walter Chaw Taking up right where the first film leaves off (and a familiarity with Clive Barker's Hellraiser is probably necessary for its enjoyment), Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which still lists Barker as an executive producer, boasts of a new director (Tony Randel) and a new screenwriter (Peter Atkins, working from an idea by Barker). Although it's pretty good as far as sequels go, owing a great deal of its creepiness to Christopher Young's superlative score (appropriated by Danny Elfman in Batman), Hellraiser II only occasionally captures the dank decomposition of Barker's literary and cinematic sensibility. That it's a disappointment is not a surprise; that it is not as much of a disappointment as one would have every right to expect is an even bigger surprise. While Hellraiser II is not the atmospheric brood-fest that the original is, it is still a horror film admirably reliant on a slate of unusual (and different) ideas.
In a nutshell, I guess you could say that Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) has had a bad couple of days. Her father, her wicked stepmother Julia (Claire Higgens), and her horny reanimated cannibalistic uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) have all been killed by the Cenobites: a foursome of leather-clad demons that have a predilection for ripping people apart with fishhooks. The events of its predecessor are covered in the first five minutes of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, in an entirely unhelpful montage that provides secrets into the birth of arch-villain Pinhead (Doug Bradley) but is doubtless arcane to neophytes. With no one believing Kirsty's wild rants concerning puzzle boxes (a demonic Rubik's Cube that unleashes the bad guys), haunted mattresses, and bloodthirsty sexual zombies, she is sent off to have a little quiet time at the Channard Institute/Asylum.
The institution is presided over by the reptilian Dr. Channard (an exceptional Kenneth Cranham), where the good doctor's hobbies seem to revolve around finding a way to infiltrate Hell, the inferno of Hellraiser II's title. Naturally intrigued by Kirsty's tales of a puzzle box that appears to be the key to the doctor's fixation, Channard reanimates Kirsty's stepmother (Julia) from the aforementioned haunted mattress, murders off the inmates of his basement inferno to feed his new girlfriend (Julia, again), and gets Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), a mute girl who is adept at puzzles, to open the dreaded antique, thus releasing the Cenobites and allowing entrance into the underworld.
Like the first film, Hellraiser II delivers an amazing amount of discomfiting imagery on an extremely limited budget. The make-up effects for Pinhead and his merry demons are excellent, with each of them resembling dominatri of various ilk, resplendent with the fruits of their unhealthy scarification and piercing obsessions. The Cenobites are given a minimum of screentime (and effectively castrated at the climactic showdown), yet, in retrospect, less is probably more, lest a menacing quartet of monsters become ludicrous one-liner-spouting Freddy Krueger caricatures (as happens to them in Hellraiser 3).
Among the many atrocities meriting the "unrated" Hellbound: Hellraiser II's rating: a brain surgery is shown in loving detail; a few skulls are punctured by hungry fingers; whole skins are exchanged, split, and chuffed off like surgical scrubs; throats are slashed; drills are misused; and scalpel-tipped tentacles wreak politically incorrect havoc on an invalid ward. Incidentally, I'm no doctor, but giving a straight razor to a man who believes that his skin is crawling with insects is probably not the best way to uphold your Hippocratic oath. Hellraiser II is not a film for the weak of gorge or the faint of heart--I found myself leaving my strawberry-jelly sandwich to its own devices fewer than five minutes into the film.
Amidst all this blood and grue, however, what's particularly compelling is the imagining of Hell as a sterile Labyrinth that, far from teeming with the howling souls of the damned, is abandoned and chill. Clearly meant to be an expansion of the calming institutional hues of Channard's asylum, the set design in the maze/inferno sequences, all shot in a deep blue, is startling and thematically evocative. In the final analysis, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a film divided between moments of invention and, sadly, even more moments of banality and melodrama. There is altogether too much time spent in wrestling with a script that simply has no secrets hiding behind its incoherence and too little time exploring the possibilities of its archetypal abattoir. It is best if taken as a dark version of Jim Henson's Labyrinth or Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but any truly pregnant subtext is most likely extra-textual. It most resembles, in fact, Tarsem Singh's The Cell, in terms of missed opportunities (and envelope-pushing splatter): Each ultimately manages to be hollow and disjointed at their centre despite occasionally mesmerizing, both thematically and viscerally.
Anchor Bay's laudable dedication to resurrecting "classics" of horror and cult cinema has resulted in another must-have, THX-approved DVD for admirers of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. Offered on one platter in 1.85:1 and full-frame versions, the widescreen video transfer, enhanced for 16x9 displays, exhibits a certain degree of grain endemic from the low-budget source material, but it does offer considerably bright flesh tones and vibrant colour depth. In a film in which the predominant colours are blood red and booming blues, the contrasts are startling, occasionally grotesque, and always arresting. Although there are no problems with black level or edge enhancement, there is a certain flatness to the shadow detail that betrays Hellbound: Hellraiser II's age. Overall, the movie probably looks as good as it can on TV, and that's pretty good, indeed.
Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that takes rumbling advantage of lower registers in the Inferno sequences as well as providing Young's score a nimble platform. Channel separation is admirable, with dialogue split effectively and certain ambient noises (thunder, wind) appearing in the rear channels now and again. Little can ever really be done about the frequency limitations of the Eighties-recorded track, but many scenes, particularly the completion of Julia's resurrection, engage and engulf with their grandeur. All things considered, bravissimo maestro.
First-time director Randel, actress Laurence, and screenwriter Atkins offer an outstanding feature-length commentary that is full of interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes and revelations of the creative process. Randel is charming and self-effacing, unfailingly noting decisions that he regrets ("Hmm...I only use that shot ten thousand times!"), and confessing that the cool reception of this film by critics hurt him a good deal. On the other end of the spectrum, Peter Atkins, while equally loquacious, comes off rather poorly. While I'm a great admirer of Barker as an artist and a person and Atkins is apparently a lifelong friend of his, Atkins seems something of a prat--constantly fishing for compliments for his largely incoherent work here, and pontificating on the extent to which the film was misunderstood. A decided lack of humility and perspective is unbecoming in any case, though because of my personal affection for Barker, I am inclined to give Atkins the benefit of a doubt. Ashley Laurence, perhaps predictably, says almost nothing save demurs of agreement and quiet giggles.
A fifteen-minute documentary entitled "Lost in the Labyrinth" appears to have been assembled by Anchor Bay specifically for this release and features interviews with the principals (Atkins, Barker, Bradley, Laurence, et al)--plus many of the secondary players--that are actually interesting and informative. Rare for so-called "making of" documentaries comprised specifically for a DVD package, "Lost in the Labyrinth", though too brief, is actually extremely helpful for an appreciation of the picture in question. The animated menus also merit a mention as imaginative and functional with fast load times and attractively creepy images. A 38-still photo gallery, an informative two-page booklet, the (quaint) theatrical trailer, and the THX Optimode tests round out this excellent disc. Originally published: August 5, 2001.