It’s hard to dislike Hellraiser: Deader, despite the fact that in many ways it’s a disappointing film. Those looking for a return to form for the once-venerable franchise will come away only mildly appeased: Dimension’s notorious penny-pinching is in full effect here, and the limited budget and format places some very real constraints on the narrative. However, this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Deader was obviously a labor of love for all concerned. This is modern low-budget filmmaking at its best, cut to the bone by a cast and crew of dedicated professionals determined to get every cent of their limited budget on the screen.
The original Hellraiser, released in 1987, was a milestone in the history of horror, marked by first time director Clive Barker’s incredibly compelling vision. The conceptual descendent of bloody ’80s thrillers like the Nightmare on Elm Street series and the more cerebral work of Dario Argento, with hints of the stylistic flair of Francois Truffaut thrown in for good measure, Hellraiser offered something for fans of shock cinema excess and art cinema style. The film’s success — along with its truly bizarre gore-centric first sequel, 1988’s Hellbound — intimated a new beginning for high concept horror: intense, sexualized, and stimulating, but above all, terrifying.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. During the ’90s, American horror films turned increasingly mainstream and toothless, the majority being teen-oriented slasher flicks that wouldn’t scare a five-year-old (see Scream and its offspring). Making matters worse, studios are remorseless when it comes to pimping recognizable horror names for profits, alienating a once loyal fan base. Just so, despite a few good moments in both the straight-to-video Inferno (2000) and Hellseeker (2002), the Hellraiser series has almost burned off all the goodwill established by the first two films.
Which brings us to 2005, and the now familiar anticipation of disappointment that accompanies the release of any Hellraiser sequel. But Deader isn’t so bad. For about the first two thirds of its running time, it creates a deliciously evil atmosphere of dread and dismay. Kari Wuhrer’s performance as a desperate reporter being dragged further into the grips of hallucinatory madness while investigating a strange death-defying cult leader is especially good. Her intensity, especially during extended scenes dealing with her own death and bloody rebirth, is far more evocative than any B-movie has the right to expect. Moreover, the movie looks good. Shooting in the former Soviet satellite state of Romania no doubt helped matters: spooky locations and talented craftspersons were found for prices that would be inconceivable in the United States.
But Deader does have problems, beginning with Neal Marshall Stevens and Tim Day’s script. For one thing, it wasn’t conceived as a Hellraiser sequel, but instead began life as a separate entity (Stevens’ original Deader), and the attempts by Day to bracket the rather ingenious concept (a mysterious cult leader discovers a method to resurrect the dead) onto the already well-defined Hellraiser mythos fall mostly flat. Characters drop hints and make allegations throughout the film (and in the bonus scenes) that point towards explanations, but the expected moment of revelation never arrives. There’s a fine line between mystery and confusion, and this film ends firmly entrenched in the latter. Crucial questions about the villainous Winter (Paul Rhys), say, how he resurrects the dead and how his scheme intersects with those of Hell (represented by Doug Bradley as the inimitable Pinhead) are left, at best vague, and at worst opaque.
The bonus material creates a compelling chronicle of the film’s stunted potential. Numerous scenes that appear in the film in truncated form are presented in their entirety, suggesting that cutting the film to just under 90 minutes omitted some excellent moody set pieces (particularly a revealing monologue by Georgina Rylance’s forlorn zombie girl). Similarly, the “making of” features and the (slightly repetitious) commentary tracks by director Rick Bota reveal the extent to which the low budget and hectic filming schedule created an atmosphere of inspired creativity. Bota can be proud of how well the film holds up despite these limitations, but fans of the original Hellraiser, as well as horror filmmaking in general, will be wishing that the studio had granted them the leeway for another 10 minutes of running time, another pass at the script, and another few hundred thousand dollars to make the special effects in the final scenes look less than dismal.
Deader‘s troubles can best be summed by an interaction in the commentary during the deleted scenes. During an extended version of a confrontation between Wuhrer and Pinhead, director Bota inquires why Bradley’s voice — usually deepened and flanged in post-production to give Pinhead his distinct spooky timbre — was unchanged in the extra scenes. A voice from outside the recording booth can be heard yelling, “No more money.”
The dearth of computer effects gives much of the movie an old-school appearance. But when the frankly inferior CGI rears its head in the final scenes, you realize that the low-tech feel was not so much a return to the stylish craftsmanship of the past as a budgetary decision. It makes you wonder what these dedicated filmmakers could have done if their hands hadn’t been tied.