I'm a casual fan of the HELLRAISER franchise, about as casual as it gets. Although I like the movies, I'm very rarely in the mood to watch them. But I am in that mood now. The news that a tenth installment in the series is currently filming has inspired me to go back and take another look at the existing films, and while doing so I realized that the first two were prime candidates for a Face-Off because the horror community seems to be split over which is the superior film, HELLRAISER or HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. So I decided to pit them against each other and see which came out looking better from my dispassionate perspective.
Dragged to Hell by strange beings called the Cenobites after solving a mysterious puzzle box, Frank Cotton is able to escape their clutches when blood is spilled on the spot of his "death"... Problem is, he comes back with no skin. He needs his lover Julia (who is also his brother's wife) to murder people for him so he can consume their blood and power his regeneration, all the while fearing that the Cenobites are going to catch up with him.
Long obsessed with the idea of the puzzle box that opens interdimensional doorways, an evil psychiatrist resurrects a skinless Julia through the mattress she was killed on and forces a patient to solve the puzzle box so he and his new lady love can journey into the Cenobite-filled labyrinth of Hell, which is overseen by a being called Leviathan. Believing her father is trapped in Hell, Kirsty Cotton also journeys into this world on a rescue mission.
There's a reason why Kirsty Cotton is a popular heroine. She's strong-willed, independent, smart, has a warranted distrust in Julia, and doesn't turn away when she thinks something's wrong. Faced with the terrifying Cenobites after solving the puzzle box herself, she has the presence of mind to make a deal with them so she can try to end her uncle and stepmother's murder spree.
Although understandably suffering some mental and emotional trauma from her experiences in the first film, Kirsty is still the tough heroine we know in the sequel. She doesn't want to dwell on what happened, she just wants to take action, and is such a strong person that she's even willing to go to Hell to try to save her father. Now that's a character worth rooting for.
Skin or no skin, Frank Cotton is one of the most despicable characters I've ever seen in a film. Devoid of any morals, he doesn't truly care about anyone but himself, he lives only for his own gain and pleasures. Icy and cruel, Julia Cotton certainly lives up to the Wicked Stepmother stereotype. She is so into Frank that she's willing to do anything and kill anyone for him. Exactly why she fell for him is beyond me, the guy radiates an aura of sleaze and filth.
Julia and Frank both return for the sequel, with Frank remaining a manipulative, lascivious scumbag even while being tortured in Hell. The filmmakers were aiming to elevate Julia to icon status here, and it shows in the way she is truly relishing being, as she describes herself, an "Evil Queen". Joining them is psychiatrist Dr. Channard, who is sort of a bland character on the surface but is hiding some very dark secrets. He does not remain a human villain for the entire film.
The Cenobites, including franchise poster boy Pinhead, are used exceptionally sparingly in the first film, appearing for less than ten minutes total, but they are so fascinating in concept and design that they still manage to steal the show when they step up in the third act. They are frightening figures that threaten to tear your soul apart, but also have a sense of fairness and class to them. Especially Pinhead, who seems like the most reasonable "monster" you could hope not to encounter.
Franchises usually wait a few sequels before they start de-mystifying their characters, but HELLRAISER started doing it with part 2, opening with a flashback of the creation of Pinhead and also giving glimpses of the people his fellow Cenobites used to be... And then these captivating creatures are all destroyed by a quippy Cenobite version of Channard, who seems to want to be the next Freddy Krueger. He's lame, but there are still some great moments with the OG Cenobites.
The England-for-America filming location was never quite convincing to me. Even with the low number of accents present (some of them are poorly masked), this always felt like a very British film to me. Which isn't necessarily a failing; the fact that it's presented as the U.S. when it doesn't feel like it is just adds to the "off" atmosphere of the entire film. HELLRAISER was an incredible accomplishment for writer/director Clive Barker, who managed to capture an intense feeling of dread in nearly every moment. It's like a nightmare on film, without going too far into dream logic. It's a deeply uncomfortable movie to sit through, the fact that it's so effectively unnerving is a reason why I rarely feel like enduring it.
Director Tony Randel did a fine job following up on Barker's style in the sequel, while the story widens the scope and delves further into the mythology. The answers it gives are interesting, but in exchange for them we lose that sense of dread that permeated the first film. This one still has an unnerving edge, but it also has a gloss to it that dulls that edge. The scope, the visuals, and the added humor give this one the feeling of being more of a dark fantasy spectacle than an onslaught of horror like the first. Part 1 felt dangerous, this one feels a bit more typical. HELLBOUND is a great sequel, but in the end I don't find it to be quite as effective as HELLRAISER was. And that still isn't the United States.
And there we have it. Rewatching the first two films, this casual fan found the original HELLRAISER to be the more troubling (in a good way) viewing experience. While HELLBOUND is a strong sequel with its own merits, when put head-to-head with its predecessor I find that it can only tie the first one at best, it never exceeds it for me.
Do you agree with the results of this Face-Off, or do you feel that HELLBOUND's broader scope made for a better film? I'd be very interested to hear your opinion, so leave a comment below. I'd also be glad to receive suggestions for future Face-Off articles. If you think you have an idea for a good Face-Off, drop me a line at CodyHamman@joblo.com.