Saturday, September 16, 2017

Don't Watch This Alone!: HELLRAISER: INFERNO (2000)

Welcome to another installment of DON'T WATCH THIS ALONE!, where we review the best, worst, and everything in between in the world of horror. This week we look back at the fourth sequel in the Hellraiser franchise, and the series' first direct-to-video release: HELLRAISER: INFERNO.

I think the Hellraiser sequels generally get a bad rap from horror movie fans. Yes, the 1987 original stands apart, if only because it was the only movie in the series directly based on anything Clive Barker actually wrote. Also, not all of the sequels are good; I don't recall the series' eighth installment, 2005's Hellraiser: Hellworld, particularly fondly, and like you, I too wish that 2011's Hellraiser: Revelations hadn't happened at all. But the rest of them fall into the "Worth a Watch" column to varying degrees, and the best bet of the bunch for me is Hellraiser: Inferno.

Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer) is a a fiend for solving riddles, puzzles and mysteries, drawn to any opportunity to test his wits or his cleverness. He is also an indefensible scumbag. We're barely introduced to the character before we see him steal drugs and money from crime scene evidence, and leave his wife at home to go hook up with a prostitute, justifying the act in voice-over as just something he does to keep his marriage going. So like most of the main characters of the various Hellraiser films, he's a markedly corrupt individual.

In the course of things, Thorne comes into possession of the puzzle box and, partly because of his yen for puzzles but mostly because this is a Hellraiser movie and there are certain standards to maintain, he opens it. As you might imagine, this turns out to be an exceptionally bad decision. Fans of the series are well aware that opening the puzzle box attracts the attention of the Cenobites, those demons out of a Marquis DeSade S&M nightmare, and their leader, Pinhead, played as always by the inimitable Doug Bradley. If you're familiar with the previous Hellraiser movies, you probably expect the ensuing story to be played out with plenty of bizarre spectacle and lots of bloody violence. But you'd only be half right.

From the very beginning, Hellraiser: Inferno works to subvert the audience's expectations. The box first appears in our tale in creepy surroundings (Thorne finds it at the scene of a particularly grisly murder), and those hooks do make an appearance, but in almost every other way, this movie bucks the trend. It starts with that moment that kicks off every Hellraiser movie: somebody opens the box. In any other case, the box does its little mechanical dance and the hooks immediately appear. In this case, the box opens ... and the lights flicker. That's it. For a moment we're not sure anything has happened at all. Strange things will begin to happen shortly, and periodically over the course of the story, but I love how the movie plays with our sense of reality right up until the end. Double-takes, narrative resets, and long sequences of apparent mundanity with only one small, or not-so-small, detail out of place challenge our assumptions of what's really going on as the mystery unfolds.

The second thing I really like about this movie is the use of Hellraiser trademark violence. There's plenty of it -- remember those standards I mentioned? -- but it almost always happens just off camera. We don't get to see it, but boy, do we hear it, and for me, that makes for a far greater overall effect. Movie fans, especially horror movie fans, are difficult to shock these days. We've seen a lot of creativity in violence over the years. If I can see it, I can adapt pretty quickly. But if all we hear is the sound of a woman screaming, and the screams becoming ... gurgly ... before they stop? That makes me uneasy. What we imagine will always be more unsettling than reality. Hardcore horror fans, real torture porn aficionados, will likely be left flat by this. But I respect a horror movie that tries to bring the thrills some other way than a simple series of gory set pieces.

But this is a direct-to-video movie and as you might expect, the acting occasionally leaves something to be desired. I mostly like Craig Sheffer's performance, though he can come off as a little too much of a by-the-numbers portrait of a corrupt cop before things really start to fall apart. Pinhead doesn't do much; his role is more like a conductor, guiding Detective Thorne's descent into hell from the shadows rather than get actively involved, and only showing up periodically to give clues or finally explain just what is going on. But I find I like this application of the character; over the course of four previous movies, it's been established that once someone opens the box, the Cenobites have already won. Somebody's going to die tonight. So instead of making Thorne immediately aware of just what he's gotten himself into, the story puts him in a cat-and-mouse game that plays out slowly over the course of the movie. And what makes it great is that not only does Thorne not know he's already lost, he doesn't even know he's playing.

In the end, Inferno is an unorthodox but fitting entry into the Hellraiser universe. Like all the horror movie franchises that were born in the 1980s, Hellraiser has a central theme, but rather than something simplistic like "the children pay for the sins of their parents" (Nightmare on Elm Street) or "immorality deserves punishment" (Friday the 13th), the Hellraiser universe is a collection of tales of the horrors born when obsession meets selfishness. Obsession, after all, is a very close cousin to addiction, and left unrestrained, those two can create a special kind of hell.

Hellraiser: Inferno is a mystery/thriller that just happens to have demons in it. If you prefer your horror with plenty of beautiful teenagers making bad decisions and meeting bad ends, this is not the movie for you. But if you want something more cerebral, that looks to make your skin crawl rather than coax another scream out of you, then turn off the lights and get ready for a good time.

Hellraiser: Inferno is rated R for strong violence and gore, language, sexuality and drug use.

Robert's Score: 7 / 10

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