To state it up front: Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is the scariest film of the 1980s. Other major contenders are Andrzej Żuławski’s POSSESSION, David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, George Romero’s CREEPSHOW, Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and John Carpenter’s THE THING. But in the following essay, I will reveal the various reasons why Tony Randel’s HELLBOUND: HERLLRAISER II is, in actuality, the (second) scariest film of the 1980s.
The 1980s were a glorious time for horror and for horror fans. Not only was there a great variety within the genre, but the volume of mainstream, studio-backed, R-rated horror films being released in theaters was greater than it had ever been. New artists were arising through horror movies, and some of the tentpoles of the genre arose during this period. Slasher fanatics were treated to a glorious glut of content, and, as children of the 1980s can attest, there seemed to be a new slasher sequel every other week; this was a time when Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers were all operating simultaneously. It was proven that the genre was a great money-maker, so everything was tried.
When one thinks of the dominant characterization of ’80s horror cinema, however, one goes, first and foremost to the slasher genre. The 1980s slashers introduced audiences to the notion of a singular iconic monster, usually an undying supernatural creature, who thrived on the violent deaths of young people. Audiences no longer went to movies to relate to victims. They went to see – and to relate to – a monster. As such, many 1980s movies tended to feature – with various degrees of success – re-purposed badass action heroes. By the second or third film in his series, Freddy Krueger became more important than the teens he was killing. We wanted to see these monsters get their comeuppance at the film’s conclusion, but audiences quickly learned that death was a mere hiccup for people like Freddy.
This is why the HELLRAISER films are typically lumped in with slashers like HALLOWEEN 4. HELLRAISER, written and directed by the venerable Clive Barker, was released in 1987, and told the story of a man named Frank who had somehow escaped death, and who convinced his brother’s wife – an aggressively lustful previous mistress of his played by Claire Higgins – to kill other men in his name. The dead bodies would serve as Frank’s food and his means of regeneration; when he came back from the grave, Frank was little more than a pile of meat. The iconic monster of the film, however, was the Lead Cenobite – later known as Pinhead – the hellish creature that killed Frank to begin with.
The Lead Cenobite is one of the great creations of horror cinema. Unique in design, the Lead Cenobite was a supernatural S&M enthusiast who was able to be summoned by means of a magical puzzle box. When summoned, he and the other cenobites would torture their victims to death as a means of providing them with the ultimate sexual experience; to the cenobites, pain and pleasure are one and the same. They literally got off on the pain and suffering of others. They were not, however, rapists. The cenobites only provided this torture to those who wished to live on the ultimate fringe of sensuality. They were dangerous, but unlike other movie killers of the time, did not want to stalk and slay innocents for sport. They were interested in guiding the curious into a world of extremity. In a way, they were welcome teachers. It’s just that what they taught was hideous.
Pinhead and the cenobites’ association with characters like late-stage Freddy and any-stage Jason is unfortunate, as they differ so. The cenobites are not slashers, and the HELLRAISER movies, for all their killing and gore, don’t quite resemble slasher movies.
The original HELLRAISER was all about lust. It was about how appetites of the flesh can drive people to do extreme things, including colluding with demons and murdering strangers. That the characters were adults added to the lustful themes. Sure, there are scads lustful teens in horror movies, but they – as a whole – represent a kind of playful, fun, easy sexuality. The teens in horror movies boink because they want a zesty good time. The lust on display in HELLRAISER is much darker. It comes from people who have matured, have explicit and well-thought-out sexual tastes, and have lived long enough to become dissatisfied. So when these characters feel lust, it’s serious business. They want – they need – a good shag. This is not sex with a wink and a smile. This is teeth-gnashing, dark, hurtful, aggressive sexuality.
From that platform came, in 1988, Tony Randel’s HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II, a movie that expands and deepens the themes of the first HELLRAISER, and transforms the first film into something more universal, and something far more surreal and terrifying.
HELLRAISER was, at times, a very hallucinatory film. We don’t know what the cenobites really are or how they got that way, so when they do show up, we’re intrigued and scared. We don’t really know what they want, beyond hurting us. But we also know they are intelligent beings who can speak and are articulate. They have made a decision to live this life. HELLBOUND takes the creatures and lets us know them better. But, unlike most origin stories (which have a tendency to demystify rather than enrich), knowing where they came from makes the characters more interesting. The cenobites, we learn, used to be human, and actively elected demonhood.
And what brought those people to demonhood? What was so alluring? As revealed in HELLBOUND, it was obsession itself. The very tendency we have to become obsessed is what will be our simultaneous undoing and catharsis. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is a film of concepts, and how there is one overriding principle in our lives – that one categorical imperative – that we cannot escape. That one thing we obsess over will, eventually, make or break us.
The HELLBOUND picks up where the last film left off, joining Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) recovering from the trauma of having just fought off the cenobites and witnessing the death of her father. She has a vision that her father is in Hell, and is suffering. She resolves to locate the magical puzzle box, solve it, enter Hell, and rescue her father. The secondary main character of the film, however, is Kirsty’s psychiatrist, a brain surgeon named Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham). Dr. Channard, we learn, has been amassing a great deal of Forbidden Knowledge about the puzzle boxes, the way they operate, and what they might offer. Channard, however, is not motivated by lust. His bodily interest is much more basic. He is obsessed with the mind, with the meat that moves us, with blood, with the mechanics of the human body. His obsession is great.
Channard’s obsessive need to explore and to cut is relegated, however, to the academic. He’s not a serial killer or a psychopath. He is terrifyingly relatable. We all have an innate, human need to put the world in order. But in order to do that, we need to explore our own proclivities, even if they’re unhealthy. We’re all drawn to the things we know we oughtn’t have. Channard recognizes this Freudian death drive in himself, and explores it in a carefully controlled, almost scientific environment. He is terrifyingly clinical.
His analysis leads him to discover the strange, myth-like mechanics of the film’s Hell. Which is, when looked at in the right way, not a the traditional Hell. The traditional Hell of Christianity is a place where one goes to suffer as punishment for evil deeds. This Hell is run not by a devil, but by an incomprehensible obelisk that represents the labyrinth. It’s called Leviathan. The being that tortures you in this universe is not devoted to retribution. It’s devoted to obsession. Leviathan is here to serve you, should your obsession with complexity, with sex, with anything really, become strong enough.
Dr. Channard is guided into Hell by a resurrected Claire Higgins, who died at the conclusion of the first movie. She is now hungry for flesh in a new way, and is eager to feed hapless souls to Leviathan. As it turns out, however, Dr. Channard’s obsession is so strong that he is transformed into a cenobite himself. And from there, the film descends into a whirling pit of surreal nightmares. Eventually, the Channard cenobite faces off against Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the other cenobites. And his obsession with flesh, we learn, is greater than than of the cenobites’ lust. For however dark the first HELLRAISER is, HELLBOUND takes it to a much deeper, much more disturbing level.
It’s been said that film is the best medium for surrealism, and no medium can better capture the experience of dreaming. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is a melodrama, yes, but there are extended nightmare sequences that use nightmare imagery masterfully and accurately. There is a clown that juggles its own eyes. There are leather snake creates with flowers for eyes. There is a mixture of bizarre surgeries and unknowable traumas. We never get the whole picture in HELLBOUND, and that is terrifying. It’s evocative enough to leave it in the realm of the universal. We may, HELLBOUND argues, have these images inside us already.
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is a great-looking, low-budget horror nightmare about something that is oddly universal. It explores a deeply terrifying realm of casual human consciousness that we often don’t acknowledge, and it leaves a film over your brain that you may not be able to shake off. It’s amazing.