After I received the assignment for Hellworld, my editor sent me a short note confirming that I was, indeed, a glutton for punishment. This comment was prompted by my cheery willingness to wade deep into the bowels of Dimension’s direct-to-DVD empire, populated almost exclusively by the fearsome specters of franchises past, long since exhausted properties such as The Crow, Dracula, and The Prophecy. That the mighty Hellraiser franchise has fallen into such obvious disrepair is a source of much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in the horror community.
There’s a part of me, the part well acquainted with the incessant realpolitik of the movie business, that would like nothing better than to cut my losses and move on from such dispiriting ruins. But another part remains eternally hopeful that, despite past disappointments, this faith will be eventually rewarded. As is the nature of fandom, said faith is pretty much inextinguishable, regardless of circumstances and history. Just ask all the poor fools rushing out to buy the new Stones album.
Still, Hellworld, while falling short of Hellraiser (1987) and its first sequels, manages to trump its immediate predecessors. Both 2002’s Hellseeker and this year’s Deader are considerably less than compelling. Hellworld at least feels whole, with few of these films’ plot holes, inconsistencies, and obviously cut corners. The third Hellraiser film to be helmed by director Rick Bota, Hellworld shows he and his crew have learned quite a bit about filming under tight constraints, Dimension’s low budgets being the stuff of legend.
The new film’s premise takes a left turn from the familiar Hellraiser mythos, into the realm of meta-textual irony explored by the Scream series. Here, Hellraiser and its spin-offs — including the (fictional) online RPG from which the movie derives its name — are believed to be fiction. Five friends who seem more than slightly addicted to the game (and who share a terrible secret in their mutual past) receive invitations to a “Hellworld” party, held at a spooky mansion in the country owned by the unnamed host played by Lance Henriksen. Things are not quite what they seem, secrets are revealed, yadda yadda yadda.
And yet, the meta-commentary introduced by the Hellraiser-as-fiction idea goes mostly undeveloped, as does the opportunity to have a laugh at the expense of online RPGs. That the characters are aware of the parameters of the fictional universe in which they supposedly find themselves trapped does not mean that they are any wiser for avoiding what should be obvious traps and diversions. But then again, they don’t know they’re in a horror movie until it’s too late, so they can probably be excused a few boneheaded mistakes.
Of the kids assembled for this ill-fated party, Chelsea (Katheryn Winnick), is the standout. It wouldn’t be Hellraiser without a strong female lead, and Winnick more than proves her mettle. She is beautiful, with obvious star presence and an unforced, confident physicality (in a brief “Behind the Scenes” interview included on the DVD, she reveals she’s a high-level Black Belt of some sort). Why the hell is she doing schlock like Hellworld?
Khary Payton deserves a mention for making the most of a limited part, the “funny” wise-cracking black guy who gets killed in the second reel (come on, I’m hardly giving anything away). He does the voice for Cyborg on the Cartoon Network’s wonderful Teen Titans, which explains why I kept expecting his character to let loose with a furious “Boo-Yah!” and blast Henriksen with a sonic boom. For his part, Henriksen admirably sleepwalks through the film. No offense intended, but how many times have we seen him looking spooky and haggard? He would look haunted in a Busby Berkeley production.
While this is the best made and most enjoyable of the four direct-to-DVD Hellraiser sequels, that’s not saying a lot. The series has completed the awkward transition into generic slasher territory. (Even the once austere and fearsome Pinhead [Doug Bradley] is reduced to pithy one-liners à la Freddy Krueger.) Hellraiser and the first sequel, Hellraiser: Hellbound, (1988) were just plain bizarre in a way that few horror movies had ever approached. There was something ineffably terrifying about Clive Barker’s original notion of the Cenobites, extrapolated from his novella, The Hellbound Heart. These were creatures utterly repulsive, cruel and calculated torturers from a realm beyond our own invested with equal amounts of pseudo-religious symbolism and sado-masochistic titillation. Now they just show up to kill people, usually in particularly uninspired ways. Yawn.
The situation has reached the point where some fans believe Rick Bota to be a plant, placed at Dimension by evangelical groups with the intention of turning the once-fearsome Hellraiser brand into something bland and inoffensive, stripped of all religious overtones. (This ingenious but unlikely idea comes courtesy of the message boards at www.imdb.com.) Barker is supposedly so incensed over what has become of his beloved characters since he lost control over them that he is writing a new novel (with the working title, “The Scarlet Gospel”), with the express purpose of killing off Pinhead once and for all, with a possible film adaptation to follow. All I can say is, while Hellworld is a pretty good generic horror movie, it is an abysmal Hellraiser film.