Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) is better than it has any right to be. It’s the fifth film of the Hellraiser franchise and also, the first of the series to go straight-to-video. Rarely is it a good sign when a horror franchise ends up at this point. It did work for the later Child’s Play sequels, however. I feel that Hellraiser: Inferno rose above that reputation. It’s actually my third favorite Hellraiser film after the first two, Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). That also makes it my favorite of all the straight-to-video sequels, of which there are now several.
By Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), it was clear they were trying to make Pinhead one of the big dogs. They wanted him among the ranks of Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), or Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street). In those first two films, Pinhead and his Cenobites were a much smaller part of the story. It might be more accurate to say that they were in the periphery. The posters featured them simply because they were perhaps the most memorable image from the films. In this sense, you can consider Hellraiser: Inferno a throwback. It’s a detective story with very little Pinhead.
People have long believed that Hellraiser: Inferno started as a spec script. If this were the case, it would mean that it was only later transformed into a Hellraiser movie with Pinhead. Pinhead being such a small part of it, and seeming somewhat out of place, could be explained by this. This is the information you’ll come across if you go to IMDb or Wikipedia. Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead for the majority of the series, has reportedly said as such as too. Director Scott Derrickson says differently. He said he was asked to think of an idea for a Hellraiser movie while waiting for another movie to get off the ground. Hellraiser: Inferno was what he and his writing partner, Paul Harris Boardman, came up with. I’m more inclined to believe the director and co-writer.
Hellraiser: Inferno was the feature film directorial debut of Scott Derrickson. Wider audiences would probably best know him as the director of Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016). That movie was pretty fun, somewhat a superhero version of Inception (2010). Derrickson had established a career mostly in horror up until that point. I probably liked The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) more when it came out. Part of that may have had to do with the film having a dilemma of faith, as I considered myself a member of the Christian faith at that time. I would say though that it’s part horror, part courtroom drama, with the courtroom side being more interesting. It’s still probably my second favorite of Derrickson’s films. I don’t think his The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) remake is great, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation.
Sinister (2012) was a good Blumhouse horror film, which made Super 8 video scary and had a great use of sound and music. I wasn’t even aware of it though until a few years after it’s release. There’s one jolting moment in particular that I’ll always associate with that movie, but I won’t spoil it. It’s my favorite film by Derrickson up to this point. I’d say you can skip Sinister 2 (2015) however, even though it stars one of the most beautiful women on the planet, Shannyn Sossamon (The Rules of Attraction, 40 Days and 40 Nights). Deliver Us From Evil (2014) is probably my least favorite of Derrickson’s films. It also involves exorcism, but it’s a bit of a mess, with a strange use of music by The Doors.
Paul Harris Boardman collaborated with Scott Derrickson on the scripts for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil. Before Derrickson broke into directing, the two also collaborated on the script for Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000). That was a slasher sequel I think I liked at the time more than the first Urban Legend (1998). I don’t feel that way now, and I want to say it hasn’t held up well for me. They also wrote Devil’s Knot (2013), the first film directed by Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) that I’ve seen. I just watched that film which was alright. My roommate mentioned that he didn’t know there was a movie made about the West Memphis Three. I discovered then that I was maybe the only person on the planet who had never heard of them.
As said before, Hellraiser: Inferno is a detective story. It even has voice-over throughout that would be standard of the crime film noirs that came before it. Craig Sheffer plays our lead detective, Joseph Thorne. Don’t confuse Sheffer with David Boreanaz (Valentine, Bones). I only say that because the two have what I feel is more than a passing resemblance to each other. Horror fans would probably most know Sheffer from Nightbreed (1990).
Nightbreed has a couple of connections to Hellraiser. Clive Barker wrote and directed both Nightbreed and the first Hellraiser. Doug Bradley also appeared in Nightbreed and has played Pinhead in more Hellraiser movies than any other actor. I regret to admit, however, that I have still never seen Nightbreed. I know Craig Sheffer mostly as the jerk from Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). John Hughes wrote and produced that teen movie, which I feel is under-seen and under-appreciated.
It almost feels like Craig Sheffer is continuing his role from Some Kind of Wonderful in Hellraiser: Inferno. Joseph Thorne is a pretty shady detective. He does drugs and cheats on his wife with prostitutes. He is an absentee father and is later revealed to be an absentee son as well. When he arrives at the first gruesome crime scene in the film, Joseph knows the supposedly murdered victim. In fact, Joseph and his friends once bullied the poor guy in high school. We’ve become acquainted through previous Hellraiser movies with the puzzle box found at the crime scene. Discovered also is a candle with a child’s finger inside the wax.
A fan of puzzles, Joseph of course figures out the box while spending the night with a prostitute. He has what he believes to be a dream. Female cenobites appear, seductively running their hands across his chest. Eventually, their hands go through his skin, caressing the organs underneath. The dream ends with an appearance from Pinhead, who pulls Joseph’s eyes apart. This may be an unsubtle foreshadowing of how Pinhead will inevitably help Joseph see the truth of his life by expanding his viewpoint.
While Joseph believes it to be a dream, the next day he’ll get a call from the prostitute at his precinct. Screams are heard as if she’s being tortured to death. Joseph goes back to the hotel with his partner, where they find the prostitute killed in the shower, another child’s finger left at the scene. Nicholas Turturro plays Joseph’s partner, Tony Nenonen. He also played a detective on the TV series NYPD Blue. You’re probably familiar with his brother, John Turturro (Do the Right Thing, The Big Lebowski).
Joseph convinces Tony that he’s innocent and to help him cover it up. He’s not so trusting though that he won’t leave behind Tony’s pack of cigarettes and pen in case he needs to blackmail him. After this, it’s a wonder that Tony remains such a loyal, supportive partner. He might have too much of a good heart for his own good.
Joseph soon starts to lose his grip on reality, seeing Cenobites everywhere. He thinks he sees a moving tattoo of the female Cenobites who fondled him in his supposed dream. He also starts hearing about someone called the “Engineer”. Firstly, from an ice cream man and drug dealer named Bernie, played by Nicholas Sadler (Twister, Idle Hands), who serves as his informant. Horror fans, look closely during the flashback scene as Bernie tells his story of the “Engineer”. The house used in that scene is the same as the Jarvis house in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). Bernie ends up being another victim of the Cenobites. We see him killed on tape by a cat o’ nine tails. The footage mysteriously disappears though when Joseph tries to show the video to his superiors.
A chaplain psychologist named Dr. Paul Gregory, played by James Remar (The Warriors, The Girl Next Door), also knows more than we’re initially led to believe. When Joseph first meets with him, he mentions how he had a strange dream the night before. This is where some of the problems of the movie come through. Multiple days have passed since then. Too much has happened also for only one day. There’s also a reveal regarding Dr. Gregory that is a bit clunky. I’ll admit that the writing could have used some work. There’s a scene involving what appear to be cowboys that feels out of place and unnecessary. It’s not the only moment that ultimately feels insignificant.
My favorite scene, however, takes place at a hospital where Joseph’s father is. Joseph isn’t very close to his parents anymore, but he goes to the hospital after receiving a call from his mother that sounds like an emergency. Some of the imagery is great here. There’s an expanding hallway shot that feels straight out of Poltergeist (1982). An older man in a wheelchair has his face stretched out into a smile by hooks. We also hear him laugh like a child. As Joseph walks from his father’s hospital room into the next room, the hospital suddenly transforms into his childhood home. The door slams shut behind him, and we hear his mother’s garbled screams from the next room. Blood eventually flows under the door.
This scene also has a couple of recognizable faces. The late Kathryn Joosten plays Joseph’s mom. I loved her as Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing. She also had a memorable guest spot on Scrubs. Winifred Freedman plays a nurse in this scene. The Last American Virgin (1982) is a teen sex comedy I love that has more heart than you might expect. Freedman has a small role in that. She was also the student driver who flicks off Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!, Prom Night) in The Naked Gun (1988).
Hellraiser: Inferno operates as a morality tale more than some of the other Hellraiser movies. This may be less surprising if you know that Scott Derrickson is a Christian. He is playing with interesting ideas. We see a selfish life leading to an eternal loop of damnation. It’s open to further interpretation, however. I first saw Hellraiser: Inferno when I was in high school. I want to say that I flat-out loved it then.
With time, age, and repeated viewings, I don’t think I would hold it up quite that high. Hellraiser isn’t one of my favorite horror series. That might be why this fifth film still holds it’s ranking as my third favorite. Scott Derrickson shows some early potential in his debut. He would grow and get better in certain ways as he made more films. I would say that among the Hellraiser series, Hellraiser: Inferno is still one of the good ones, along with those first two films. The rest of the movies range from decent to flat out garbage. So that’s saying something of the first straight-to-video entry in the series.