By most people’s judgement, the third entry in the Hellraiser franchise is not a great film, some might even say it’s not even a good film either. When coming in from the first two films – films which are great examples of the kind of passion and attention that can go into a horror film, you’ll notice very quickly how they’re bastardised. These films built a dark world full of sadism, greed, perverse morality and violence which is being built by a power of hell contained within a puzzle box.
Being originally released in the ’80s, these films had to compete in a genre where the slasher film reigned supreme, so they had to stand out. Standing out is exactly what they did, and continue to do in their statuses as classics. While you might recognise the villains as Pinhead and chums, the genius of the first two films was their focus on the downfall of man. We have Frank for part 1, a nihilistic creeper who likes hitting on his niece and would murder his brother to survive (spoiler: he does) and then we have Dr. Chanard for part 2, who is so obsessed with discovering hell he sacrifices the mentally ill to do so. Pinhead and his goons are simply agents of these two men’s desires, and while still not exactly all hugs and nugs, they have a code and won’t simply come after you like bloodhounds.
These are two films that create a twisted evolution of mankind’s will to survive and desire to learn. Frank is the instinctive early man, seeking out the carnal of what feels nice, and to truly come back from hell, he even has his lovesick sidekick Julia whack people over the head with a hammer. Dr Chanard is an extreme example of our desire for knowledge: a learned man who uses his patient’s minds as an end to know more. He even ends up becoming literally connected to hell itself and taking on a newly liberated Pinhead and co. much to their dismay.
Pinhead himself only has about 25 minutes screen-time between these films, and by the end of part 2, both he and his lackeys are dead, as is Frank, Julia and Chanard. The very last scene does sort of set-up a sequel, with a pillar of gore emerging from a mattress but that could’ve just been a bit to say, you can’t beat hell or something. Well turns out you can’t because Hellraiser is a franchise now and Pinhead is recognised in the hall of fame alongside Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Leatherface. This wasn’t because of the brilliance of the first two though, this was because of Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.
This put Pinhead at the front of its baddy queue, with a plot centred around his personal pursuit to escape hell forever and do what else but take over the world. It’s an ambitious idea that could’ve worked if done a little differently (mainly the whole taking over the world thing) but it has a real coherency problem and ends up getting lost in its own theme of good vs evil.
As we learnt in part 2, Pinhead was actually once a well-respected captain in WW1 named Elliot who became despondent to the world afterwards, finding the puzzle box in India and thus being transformed into the face of the Order of Gash. His realisation that he was not always a scalpel happy agent of torture, reforms him back to Elliot before being killed by Dr Chanard.
The third film follows on from this, but now Pinhead is his own agent, free of any humanity and Elliot is trapped between reality and the afterlife, I think – it gets incredibly hard to follow how this works but basically what it means is that Pinhead is no longer the indifferent enforcer of hell’s designs, but now a demonic maniac. While it’s nice to see Doug Bradley doing more in the role, and how much of a body count a force like Pinhead could rack up if all bets were off, it just feels weird seeing him full of glee while he kills metalheads in a club.
The strangest part of it is actually how limited the film is with its own ideas. It seems to imply that some dark power lurks over the entirety of New York City, yet when Pinhead actually sets himself loose on the streets, there are only a few people wandering around (some of who don’t even react to what’s happening) and he just loosens a few power lines and drain covers. I know there are budgetary limits but why to have a scene like this at all if you can’t do it properly – it just sticks out like a wart.
It basically creates a new pinhead, one which is more akin to the traditional slasher villain, chopping up as many people as he can get his hands on. However, unlike Frank or Dr Charnard, we don’t really know anything about our villain’s motives (except that he’s evil), which is especially apparent here as Pinhead has no humanity – all of that is literally a sperate character. But it’s this Pinhead that would go on to star in the rest of the franchise, and I say star loosely as a lot of the sequels after part 4 weren’t even originally written as Hellraiser films.
This Pinhead is also the one which has cemented himself in horror icon history. That isn’t to say Pinhead from parts 1 & 2 isn’t iconic, but number 3’s decision to follow a more normal set-up of a horror film put him on the same level. I still get a kick out of this film, and it does have some really good moments, it just makes you wonder what could’ve been if the ambition and Clive Barker’s original ideas remained the same.
If you’re interested in this entry, I’d recommend the blu rays from Arrow Video because it’s only the first three films and we can pretend that’s where the series ends.