I’ve made no secret over the course of this thing I’m writing that I don’t like the franchising of horror film. I mean, generally turning films into franchises is a bad idea when they aren’t really built for it, because it seems like over the course of any given series, you run the risk of taking what was interesting about the initial film and diluting it into a series of fanservicey gestures that end up not so much being films as allusions to previous films (“remember when this one character said that one thing two movies back?”), or the most superficial aspects of the initial film being reiterated until subsequent films are just expressions of some very basic narrative hooks (“what Rube Goldbergian demises await the hapless teens in this installment of Final Destination?”) instead of coherent stories.
That sucks regardless. However, I think when it comes to horror it’s even worse, because part of what lends horror film power is the element of mystery, of the unknown, the unexplained, the unresolved. The best, most powerful horror is the horror that denies you the safety or comfort of understanding it. The best horror leaves us stranded in the dark when all is said and done. And franchises do not operate on that principle. Every subsequent film begins with us knowing a little more about the antagonist at its core, every subsequent film fleshes out the world that contains it a little more, every subsequent film leans more and more heavily on a gimmick or hook. Franchises explain, explore, and exploit. And so in horror, what begins as a story about a monstrous unknown invariably turns into crummy fantasy (e.g., the Nightmare on Elm Street films) or soap opera (e.g., the Saw films).
So yeah, fuck a franchise. But so far, I’ve based this argument on partial evidence. I confess to having crapped out of the Saw series halfway through the fourth one out of boredom, and there were...what, three or four more after that? Same with the Nightmare on Elm Street films - I’ve seen the first three and New Nightmare, but I know I’m missing a couple. So I’m going to try to work my way through a franchise, start to finish, by examining one that at least grabbed me the first time around.
I’m going to look at the nine films (to date) made in the Hellraiser franchise. I’ve seen the first four already just as a casual viewer, and the early ones were much more important to me as a young filmgoer and horror enthusiast than the Elm Street or Friday the 13th films ever were, so there’s a sense of commitment for me that I just don’t feel with those others. These films definitely trace an arc from successful to bargain-bin, and I want to know how that happened and if there’s anything to be gleaned from them in this day and age.
Because there’s nine of them, I’m going to do three posts, each covering three films. Just as fair warning, they’re going to get pretty spoilery. So, without further adieu, let’s tackle the first three...
After the glut of slasher films in the late Seventies and early Eighties, featuring more or less the same baddies - masked men out for slaughter in the name of implacable revenge - Hellraiser was, for me at least, a fucking revelation. I mean, I can still remember seeing Hellraiser for the first time, and there are very, very few films about which I can say that. I was about to start my senior year of high school, and my friend Jon told me about a free midnight showing at the movie theater near my house. So it’s the middle of the night, and I think to myself “hell, it’s free - why not?” And then the movie starts. A man buys a mysterious puzzle box from a stranger in a foreign country. The stranger says “Take it, it’s yours.” And the man walks away. Then the stranger says “It always was.” Oh shit. And then the puzzle box opens up and fucking hooks fly out of it and tear the man into pieces. OHHHHH SHIIIIIIIIIT.
Hellraiser broke rules and introduced an entirely new aesthetic to horror films. I remember sitting there, watching the story unfold onscreen like the shifting sides of the puzzle box that started it off and feeling scared - not just for the obvious reasons, but also because this film abandoned the certainty I associated with horror films. There were no more guarantees, we were into uncharted territory now. It made me feel alive in a very specific way - I was not just scared by the film itself, but the idea of being in a dark room, in the middle of the night, watching something that so discarded the conventions that marked contemporary horror film that it kind of felt like the film itself was evil, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t experience that same sense of pervasive extrafilmic menace again until I saw Se7en almost ten years later and felt haunted for weeks after watching it.
As I described above, the film begins with an unnamed man – sweaty, grimy, dissipated – purchasing a wooden puzzle box from another man, glimpsed only in silhouette, with a wad of foreign currency. They might be in Vietnam, or Taiwan, or Tangiers, it isn’t here. This man has traveled far and seen much, and now he wants this puzzle box.
And here is this man, in his hovel, sitting on a bare floor, surrounded by candles, as if this box is the center of a ritual. He shifts one side, and then the other, and the box begins to move with a will of its own...
...a will that opens doors, summons chains and hooks, and agents of mortification. This man has invited butcher priests called the Cenobites into his world. And then they are gone, leaving only blood behind to mark the man’s passing.
As it turns out, the man is named Frank, and he lived his life as a decadent ne’er-do-well, the consummate black sheep of the family. His brother, Larry, has moved his daughter Kirsty and his second wife Julia into the family home, which Frank apparently used as a crash pad for some time. Nobody knows what happened to Frank, but Larry is dismissive. He’s used to Frank being unreliable. But here they are, moving into the house, dealing with the detritus Frank left behind - spoiled food, miscellaneous possessions - and Larry is trying to manage both Kirsty and Julia, who do not like each other. And then Larry injures his hand on a stray nail, and the blood pours from his hand, and onto the floor.
The floor from the beginning. The floor where the ritual took place, in the room where doors opened. And Larry’s blood calls to something, wakes something up.
As it turns out, Frank is pretty much held prisoner in a dimension apart from our own, and the spilled blood creates a conjunction that allows him to escape, albeit slowly and painfully. As it further turns out, he and Julia have a bit of a history. A cheating-on-Larry-with-Frank history. And Frank – well, the fleshless wreck that crawls, agonized, back into our world – wants Julia’s help making himself more substantial. He promises her much, and she appears all too willing to deliver. He’s trying to get away from the Cenobites, having experienced something akin to buyers’ remorse when it turns out what he’d “bought” with the box was “an eternity of being torn into pieces and reconfigured like meat Lego.” He needs Julia’s help. He needs more blood.
Once the prologue is over, the film moves briskly, establishing the important relationships quickly and economically, and pretty much everything that follows moves the story forward. As characterization goes, it’s sort of an unflattering portrayal of pretty much everyone - men in this story are either hapless and impotent like Larry and the young man who tries to help Kirsty when she discovers what’s going on, or predatory and selfish, like Frank and, oddly, the movers hired to help Larry. They leer openly at Kirsty and Julia, and there’s a palpable sense of contempt toward Larry. It’s a surprising amount of menace for what is otherwise a pretty innocuous scene early in the film. On top of that, there’s only two women - once Kirsty discovers what Julia is up to, she quickly ends up completely out of her depth and for the rest of the film exists primarily to move the plot along and get thrown around by its machinations. Julia’s set up to be a strong-willed villain figure, but it’s tough to see Julia as having agency when she appears to be doing everything she does because she really likes the way her brother-in-law fucks her. She makes a good villain figure, though. At no point does she seem warm or sympathetic at all, and she is shot and lit (starkly) from below for most of the movie, so she’s always looming and it almost looks like she has a flashlight under her chin the whole time.
Where I think Hellraiser is strongest is in the connection it posits between desire and pain as the underpinning of the world. It’s about the idea of sensation as frontier, and the idea that there’s always further you can go. It’s the reason for the Cenobites, who refer to themselves as “explorers,” as “angels to some...demons to others.” It’s in Frank’s dissipation, best exemplified by the scene toward the beginning where Julia’s memories of having sex with Frank are juxtaposed with Larry trying to push and shove the bed up the stairs, with the injury to Larry’s hand coinciding with Julia’s remembered orgasm. Frank caresses Julia’s cheek with his fleshless hand, leaving behind streaks of blood. Julia’s nervousness - flushed cheeks, rapid breathing - before committing her first murder is read by her victim as arousal. Even the way Larry really, really gets into the boxing match he’s watching – it says something about his own vicarious indulgence in the construction of masculinity he himself can’t attain, but it also suggests that pleasure and pain coexist everywhere, this isn’t something restricted only to libertines like Frank.
It reinforces these ideas vividly. For a film made during a period when slasher films were doing their damndest to codify the clichés which still stifle horror film, Hellraiser is full of nightmarish, arresting images. The Cenobites themselves are impassive and mostly silent, all wire and hooks and flesh torn and shaped into new configurations, their black robes almost priestlike, and our introduction to them, as Frank’s bedroom suddenly becomes a charnel house, is singular - suddenly we are elsewhere, a dark space filled with chains and hooks and entrails, leather-gloved hands sifting through human wreckage to assemble a face from the pieces. Forget Freddy Krueger’s nightmares, this was some next-level shit. The way the floorboards drink up Larry’s spilled blood, and the slimy ruins of Frank that pull themselves from the floor, all barely-formed limbs and squirming tendrils plugging themselves into a barely-formed brain, almost recapitulates the process of fetal development. Julia running Frank’s fleshless fingers over her lips, the way blood splashes and pools on the floor - it revels in the idea of the flesh, both in the squicky biological sense and the sensual, lustful sense, and isn’t afraid to place both ideas in the same moment. In some ways, it’s like a much less clinical, much less detached take on some of David Cronenberg’s early ideas.
That said, it has its problems – like a lot of films of its time, many of the effects have not aged well (the bit with the creature Kirsty encounters in the hospital is downright goofy), Kirsty’s love interest is utterly superfluous to the plot (she meets him at a dinner party, then they’re dating out of nowhere, and he basically shows up to help make a single plot point), the pacing means some stuff doesn’t quite work (Kirsty’s nightmare especially doesn’t make sense in context), and the ending is a little too conventional for the film, when the Cenobites decide that maybe they want Kirsty too (and really, that’s pretty much Kirsty’s only function in this film, to be desired by others) and so we get a chase through the house with the bad guys being defeated, and that works against the idea that the Cenobites aren’t really bad guys, they just do what they do. They aren’t villains, they’re explorers and priests and demons and angels all at the same time. Reducing them to bad guys diminishes the power of the film and makes them too much like any other horror film antagonist.
And this film does work and does still hold up to the extent that it does because the film isn’t really about the Cenobites - it’s immediately about Julia, Frank, and Larry, the things we do for love (the novella was called The Hellbound Heart), and the price we pay for desire (Frank betraying Julia to get a crack at Kirsty, for example). More distally, it’s about the corrupting influence of the box as it comes into other people’s lives. To the extent that the film is about the box and those it encounters, it works more effectively in a multiple-film framework because you can tell all kinds of stories within that, and I think that’s why the film opens and closes on scenes of people acquiring the box. But that’s not the direction in which future films would go. Future films would, instead - at least for awhile - focus on the Cenobites as franchisable characters, to what I think we’re going to see are disappointingly predictable ends.
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2
This is where memory becomes a tricky thing. I have vivid recollections of the first Hellraiser film, as seeing it was, in retrospect, a formative experience for 17-year-old me. However, I’m beginning to think that fondness for the first film ended up extending a line of credit to later films on which they totally fail to make good.
This is just a fancy way of saying that I remember Hellbound as being much, much better than it is. When I started screening these films for this series of posts, I was pleased to see that Hellraiser still held up and thought “oh man, I can’t wait to watch Hellbound!” And, welp.
First, one of the most egregious offenses is the film’s opening, which is incoherent – it’s a recap montage of the end of the first film (featuring a lot of reused footage), then a brief sequence showing how the Cenobite referred to as “Pinhead” came to be...
(And you know what? I gotta take a minute here because this is important – one of the things that was really, really good about the first film was that the Cenobites were largely unknown quantities. Their motivations were vague, and for most of the film we didn’t even have a name for them. That’s good horror - something terrible is after you and you don’t know what it is or why it is or what it wants. Naming it lessens it. Knowing it lessens it. And so calling them Cenobites lessens them somewhat, though it’s a name without context, and then giving them individual identities lessens them even more. It makes them known, it brings them into this world when they shouldn’t be of this world. Let alone something as glib as “Pinhead.” I guarantee you that someone really, really wanted to make these films franchisable, and you do that apparently by finding a villain and making them the centerpiece. You can sell that villain easier than you can sell a puzzle box or an idea about the relationship between sensation and desire and the flesh and how far they can all be pushed. So...”Pinhead.” Even as a kid, as soon as I saw that I knew it was some bullshit and that some of the mystery that made the first film good was getting erased.)
...basically clumsily inserted world-building - before getting to the actual story. In fact, almost the first half-hour of the film is nothing but a recapitulation of the first film, and it suffers as a result. Because heaven forbid you let a story stand on its own, if you’re going to turn this into a franchise, everyone has to be on board at every moment, even if that means using nearly a third of your goddamn runtime to say absolutely nothing new.
But anyway, the second film picks up mere days after the events of the first. We learn eventually that Kirsty is in a psychiatric hospital, having understandably lost her shit after the events of the first film, and cops are examining her father’s house. A psychiatrist named Channard has taken a professional interest in Kirsty’s care, and she’s transferred to a special ward for patients he’s treating. Kirsty wonders what’s up because, understandably, the events of the previous film have her feeling pretty damn paranoid. And because this is not really a subtle film, Kirsty’s feelings are completely justified, as it turns out Channard has sort of a sideline in collecting lore about and copies of the puzzle box from the first film, of which there is apparently more than one. Channard has a whole ward full of people that he’s using to try and figure out the puzzle box, including one young girl who is completely silent, but has a facility with puzzles. And soon enough, Kirsty discovers this and shit gets weird and out of hand as Channard is intent on opening the box and discovering its secrets.
I know this seems like a sketchy, perfunctory summation of the plot compared to the first film, but it’s indicative of one of the biggest problems with the film. Right off the bat, Hellbound feels less like a single story than Hellraiser did, and more like a bunch of scenes patched together to get us caught up to…something. As I said above, almost a third of the film was basically “hey, remember all this stuff that happened?” and as a result, the actual story for which we’re watching the second film gets short shrift. Honestly, it would have probably been a stronger story if it hadn’t been tied to the events of the first film at all and just opened on Doctor Channard, sainted caregiver to the lost and the broken, with a nasty reveal at the end of the first act. It’s stronger, I think, to present a series of stories about the sort of people drawn to the box and what the box does to them than trying to adhere to some kind of weird internal continuity, creating a world (like the one in the Saw films) where everyone knows each other and is connected to each other somehow. It invariably makes things feel deeply artificial.
It’d also be nice if Channard hadn’t been depicted as so cartoonishly evil from the very beginning, but anytime you have a psychiatrist in a movie like this, they’re usually evil. It’s such a cliché that I can’t even get angry about it, only wonder what they’re gonna do with it. It’s not quite as starkly obvious from go as Julia was in the first film, but pretty close. This haste to assemble a story that capitalizes on the first film and slot some villains into place so obviously also misses some chances to give the film some of the thematic heft of the first one. There isn’t the same attention to the idea of flesh as an engine for pure sensation and the relationship between desire and death as there is in the first, and considering the antagonist of the second film is a psychiatrist - a doctor whose practice examines the intersection of flesh (the brain) and experience - that is in retrospect fucking criminal in its oversight.
Channard is an interesting enough character – there’s potential in how we come to discover that he is just as obsessed in his own way as Frank was - but it’s too obvious from the start that he’s a bad guy and too much of the film is used up just trying to establish the “rules” of the box and the film’s universe when, as always, there’s really no need to. All the rules do is delimit the world in which the story takes place, and horror is, like I keep saying, at its best when it’s the dark at the edge of the campfire, when it’s all the shit we don't know. Rules and lore and history and origin stories demote horror to action or fantasy or science fiction, and usually half-assed examples of each at that because they aren’t invested in story, they’re invested in plot beats, signifiers, “the good parts,” the moments of shock or recognition that bring audiences back to see how they do it over this time.
I can’t completely dismiss this film, though, because it does have its occasional moments, ones that stuck in my memory and defined the film for me, however inaccurately. Julia makes a return (of course, because you can’t possibly not bring back characters in an attempt to capitalize on residual goodwill from the first film), in the role that Frank played in the first film - the seductive escapee from the clutches of the Cenobites. And it’s the sequence when Julia frees herself from the Cenobites that has echoes of the first film at its best. Channard brings a deeply disturbed man to his private study, where he’s set up the mattress upon which Julia died. (There’s that connection between desire and death again - Julia had sex on that bed, Julia died on that bed, and now that bed has become almost a holy artifact for Channard’s belief in the box) Channard knows blood is needed, and he hands the man - who suffers from serious delirium tremens – a razor.
The awful inevitable occurs, and to the film’s credit, the camera doesn’t look away as the disturbed man digs into his flesh. Julia slowly emerges from a pool of blood, taking the disturbed man in what almost looks like a lover’s embrace, wrapping her arms and legs around him, and the man’s suffering is prolonged and plainly evident as she feeds upon him. This one scene does more to recapitulate the themes of the first film than anything that comes before or after it. There’s a scene of Julia standing, fleshless, examining herself in the mirror of Channard’s immaculately white home, an errant bloody handprint on the wall. It’s a highly stylized and highly striking image, like a Michael Mann nightmare, but it’s not resonant of anything else, it’s just a really well-done setpiece. Now Julia is the seducer instead of Frank, but it’s less about her raw magnetism and more what she represents for Channard – knowledge about the box, knowledge about the worlds beyond, worlds Channard thinks will help him solve the puzzle of death. Frank wanted sensation, Channard wants eternal life, and what would have been so good would have been to see that Faustian bargain fleshed out (ha-ha), to make this film about the seduction of knowledge and how that leads to the frontiers of experience as surely as Frank’s baser hedonism. Julia spends much of her time in the film encased in bandages and a dress slightly allusive to the Bride of Frankenstein, which would have been an interesting place to go with this if Channard had been given more attention as a character. The mad doctor and his arrogance. There’s also some interesting stuff with Kirsty disguising herself in Julia’s skin to trick Channard, which sort of mirrors Frank’s appropriation of Larry’s skin in the first film, so there’s this vein (again ha-ha) of appearance versus reality running through the two films, where the flesh is just something you inhabit or vacate, not something that defines you.
But no, it’s just “hey, you remember Julia! She was in the first film! Crazy, huh?” And Julia comes back cartoonishly evil as well - any believability or subtlety or nuance in her character from the first film is lost here, and it ain’t like there was much to lose, but at least she seemed human there. Here she’s a walking cliché. She does seem to have more agency here, though, serving as Channard’s guide through the world of the box – like I said, if there is a story here, it’s the seduction of Dr. Channard, as Julia uses both the promise of sex and knowledge - Channard has always been curious about the flesh, and Julia promises him knowledge. But it could be more thoroughly developed. It could have been a stand-alone story about the box and the wreckage it does, instead of an appendage to the first film, at best.
Ultimately, though, it is a film of setpieces more than it is a singular story, striking moments intended to evoke feeling. The vision of the world beyond the puzzle box works for the most part. - it’s sort of a less corny take on some of the stuff the Nightmare on Elm Street films were trying to do, a massive labyrinthine hell in which everyone receives the punishment they deserve (though the circus funhouse bits with the puzzle-solving savant largely fall flat). But the Labyrinth itself is striking, echoing the aesthetic of the puzzle box without cartoonishly aping it The only thing is that it doesn’t really jibe with what is established in the first film - the Labyrinth should be a playground for the Cenobites, not a place to be punished for your sins, that’s too conventional. It shouldn’t be hell, it should be someplace...elsewhere. A church, a laboratory, a gallery for exploration of physical form, not yet another hell with a slightly different aesthetic. It could have been truly alien, but horror sequels don’t do new. They do reiterations of the stuff that “worked” the first time.
This film also marks the beginning of focusing more on the Cenobites than the box - the idea that Cenobites are manufactured in one fell swoop, not the product of centuries of exploring the outer edges of sensation, is also disappointingly conventional compared to what the first film promised. It feels like an “origin story” of sorts and Channard is ultimately more like this series’ answer to Freddy Krueger than the impassive priests of the flesh introduced in the first film. There are nice touches - the way his “ahhhh” reverberates with the sound of the bonesaw embedded in his head, the tentacles that erupt from his hands blooming with blades or flowers or needles or fingers is interesting as a radical recombination of the flesh, but the showdown between the other Cenobites (where they are reminded of their humanity and somehow redeemed for...reasons?) and Channard is pointless, less about horror than some cheesy mythmaking and good guy/bad guy reductionism utterly out of place in this film. There was a really good story in here and some really striking imagery, but the demands of franchising - before it was really a given for successful horror films - really compromise it throughout.
Hellraiser 3: Hell On Earth
Generally, as a rule, the further horror sequels get from the original property, the sillier and/or more convoluted they get. And damn, is Hell On Earth absolutely no exception to the “sillier” part. It also manages to be even more incoherent than the second film while at the same time also managing to be more trite too. My memories of the second film were rosy, but even at the time, Hell On Earth struck me as disappointing, and time has done nothing to disabuse me of that feeling.
The beginning is...messy. There’s a reporter named Joey, she’s a go-getter, an ambitious woman in a man’s world, and she has weird dreams about her father’s death in the Vietnam war, and there’s some kind of strange event at a hospital stemming from a mysterious puzzle box (!!!), and then there’s an art gallery where this meathead named J.P. Monroe buys a suspiciously familiar-looking pillar as an art piece for his club, the “Boiler Room” (ooooh, edgy). The pillar is something that’s appeared in the other two films mostly as set dressing or as a vague signifier for the presence of the Cenobites. So I guess the idea is that they were not vanquished at the end of the last film (which, no shit), even after the original Cenobites were redeemed and turned back into humans and Channard was defeated and Julia back in hell and it just all sounds so fucking ridiculous, doesn’t it? It really does. So basically we have Joey, who finds out that something hinky and box-related is going on, and J.P., who has bought an object that we the audience know is eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil, and the two are brought together by a young woman named Terri, who was at the hospital when all the weird shit went down (an incident not really brought up ever again even though you’d think that a hospital in a major metropolitan area would take notice when everyone in one of its operating rooms was turned into pink mist by mysterious hooked chains coming from out of nowhere) and used to be J.P.’s main squeeze. Joey goes looking for J.P., and J.P. discovers that his new decoration contains “Pinhead’s” soul somehow, and when a one-night-stand of J.P.’s accidentally stumbles too close to it and gets sort of eaten, “Pinhead” (or maybe just the evil part of “Pinhead” because apparently his good part died in the second film and aaaargh my brain fucking hurts and this is only the third movie of nine) basically starts talking to J.P. from the sculpture and offers him a deal. Folks who have seen the first couple of films can probably get an idea of what’s involved.
Straight-up, this movie is a cartoon. First, its aesthetic is Eighties as fuck, which is weird, since it was made in 1992. It’s lit mostly in blues and purples, there’s hairspray everywhere, and all of the dialogue is cornily earnest and clichéd in the way that dialogue from Eighties films tends to be - it’s somehow simultaneously glib and histrionic. The Boiler Room is the kind of club that only exists in movies from this time period - it’s dressed up with the trappings of S&M decadence and presented as some kind of dark, dangerous, underground sensation, but it’s all acid-washed jeans bros and women in shoulder-pad dresses getting down to cheesy rock music. Then there’s a room featuring live music connected to it (supplied by legitimate metal band Armored Saint – who were definitely much cooler than Dokken as movie tie-in bands go), then yet again connected to a high class restaurant that’s somehow completely quiet with a string quartet playing even though it’s adjacent to the music club. It’s like someone decided that an S&M dungeon/rock club/fine dining restaurant complex was a sensible idea.
The people aren’t any better. Everyone’s a caricature - Joey’s the ambitious young reporter trying to make it in a man’s world, J.P. is an egotistical womanizing douchebag, and Terri is a bad girl trying to make good who just can’t escape the dynamic with her abusive relationship. In the first film the characters were people with identifiable weaknesses and motivations, in the second they were nonentities intended to movie plot points forward, here they are collections of quirks and signifiers intended to convey the idea of a person without actually being people. They don’t talk to each other, they say things at each other’s faces and wait for the other to say a thing back at their face.
To its credit, however, it handles its relationship to the previous two films better than the second did to the first. There’s a quick allusion to the Channard Institute, the reappearance of the mysterious bearded man who retrieved the box from Kirsty at the end of the first film (before turning into a...giant, skeletal dragon), and that’s about it. Thematically, it does iterate the same basic structure as the other two films. In the first film, Julia enters into a Faustian bargain with Frank for the sake of lust, in the second Channard makes the same bargain with Julia for the sake of knowledge, and J.P. with “Pinhead” in this film for the sake of power. In each case, the tempter drives the tempted to sacrifice people for the sake of what it is they want, in doing so bringing their tempter out of their extradimensional exile and fully into the world. And the box is always at the center of it. This is a narrative backbeat that I think is worth preserving, but at the same time this film works from the same basic idea, it also does a lot to undermine it by shifting the focus even more from the box to its agents, the Cenobites.
In the previous films, the Cenobites weren’t really the center of the action - they were a consequence, and the story was driven by the tempter/tempted. Here, the focus is much more on the Cenobite referred to as “Pinhead” (which I’m going to keep putting in quotes because it continues to be stupid and terrible), who is played much less as an impassive decadent, and more as a classic Satanic tempter figure here.
I suppose this makes sense, though typically it’s someone’s own drive to experience that leads them to the box. But it locates “Pinhead” as a villain, making the dynamic less ambivalent and more S&M Freddy Krueger. The “splitting” of “Pinhead” into his evil, monstrous self and the man he was before he opened the box is silly, unnecessary mythmaking (along with the dreams Joey has of her dead father that exist only to set up a really stupid confrontation between the two of them). and though I’m not the kind of person who is obsessed with the idea of canon, it reduces the film, and the ideas of the film, by making it a much more conventional good guy/bad guy story, and bringing it much closer to the sort of films from which the first felt like such a refreshing change. “Pinhead’s” rampage inside the nightclub is just as cartoonish as something from one of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and this diminishes the film’s power. It’s not the dispassionate investigation of the flesh as shapable object, it’s just tedious sadism.
To be fair, “Pinhead’s” dialogue is good and resonates with the core ideas of the first film, and there’s a real edge of cruelty to it that makes Freddy Krueger’s quips look as anemic and clumsy as they really are, it’s just that in action it’s all so fucking silly. The new Cenobites are gimmicky as shit - utterly embarrassing and obvious (one throws CDs - I mean, really?), and creating an army of them trivializes and ignores what made the first film so good, just as much as dreaming children discovering their superpowers trivialized the power of the first Nightmare on Elm Street film, or the endless labyrinth of conspiracies and secret apprentices trivialized the power of the first Saw film. Likewise, “Pinhead’s” appearance in the church, piercing his own hands in a parody of the stigmata and feeding his own flesh to the priest in a blasphemous communion, has a certain power and verve to it, but it threatens to get lost in all of the sillier bits, like the CD-shooting Cenobite, or the cameraman Cenobite, or just the progression from the Cenobites of the first film - creatures from out of time, flesh contorted into new shapes – to Channard, a Cenobite manufactured immediately, to this film, where Cenobites seem to be mass-produced at whim. They are cheapened, as everything else in this film is cheapened.
The end of the film, a messy collision of plot contrivances and false conclusions and the power of love or some shit, alludes to the idea of the puzzles not being confined to a box, but also being capable of taking other forms (something explored to interesting effect in the spin-off comic series), but like other parts of this and the second movie, it’s another interesting idea or moment tossed aside for the sake of a much more conventional and less interesting structure, there only to provide a “the end...OR IS IT?” sting when at this point we know...we just fucking know...there’s going to be another one. After a certain point, a franchise develops a momentum.