Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Hellbound: Hellraiser II first published by VODzilla.co

“Was I right? Is it terrible?”

This question, asked at the very centre of Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II, articulates the greatest anxiety that can be experienced about a sequel to a much beloved film. The original Hellraiser (1987), Clive Barker’s directorial debut adapted from his own 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, was what more hyperbolic critics like to call a game-changer. With its fusion of grubby suburban gothic and torturous demons conjured from a BDSM underworld, it crept right under the skin of viewers inured to, and increasingly bored with, the heavy-breathing slashers and wise-cracking dream invaders who had dominated Eighties horror, and introduced something altogether more disturbing in its incestuous, psychosexual creepiness. Could a sequel possibly revive that hard-earned originality without also undermining it? 

This question of terribleness was posed by Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins), the wicked stepmother who, after seducing and feeding victims to her resurrected brother-in-law/lover Frank (Sean Chapman), was taken to hell at the end of the first film, but has now herself in turn been revived and bloodily reembodied by the neurosurgeon and psychiatrist Dr Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham). In other words, the first half of this sequel replays the beats of the original, only with a switch in genders – Julia even at one point inverts Frank’s catchphrase, “Come to daddy,” with her own “Come to mummy.” You can sense that Barker – who returned to write the story (but not the screenplay) and served as an executive producer – was hoping to make Julia the antagonistic focus of the whole series, but it was not to be. For the demonic ‘Cenobite’ Pinhead (Doug Bradley), now humanised with a prefatory backstory and a redemptive arc, was already becoming the fan favourite, and assuming the mantle of iconic villain. It is a pity, really, because Julia’s exit from the series after this instalment coincided with the point at which the decline set in and the franchise started to become genuinely terrible. 

Hellbound: Hellraiser II picks up from where Hellraiser ended, first reprising actual scenes from the original, and then replaying those scenes in its own sequelised variations. Its narrative begins with Julia’s stepdaughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) having just narrowly survived the pandemonium that took place in her father’s house. In a touch of realism that is atypical of horror sequels, Kirsty’s story of her frankly unbelievable experiences in the previous film has led to her being institutionalised in a private psychiatric hospital – which is how she comes into Channard’s orbit. When he is not arrogantly exploring the outer limits of neuroscience (with the mentally ill as his hapless guinea pigs) or strutting godlike through the bedlam hidden in his institute’s lower basement, Channard pursues his hobby as an amateur occultist, collecting the Rubik’s cube-like ‘Lament Configurations’ that serve as keys to hell. He (rightly) regards the bloody, filthy mattress found in the home of Kirsty’s father as another access to the infernal realms – while Kirsty hopes to go there herself to rescue her father. Channard’s raising of the skinless Julia, and his subsequent romance with her, may represent a process familiar from the first film, but the makeup effects in these sequences – where Julia is all blood, muscle and sinew – are realised with icky perfection, while her seduction (in this freakishly half-formed state) of Channard is played out with a surreal grotesquery. Visual references to Robert Fuest’s drolly macabre The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) clinch the self-conscious silliness of the tone here. 

At the halfway point, the sequel goes in a new direction, taking all its characters down to a hell stylised, with its endless vaulted corridors and tricks of perspective, to resemble the Escher designs that decorate Channard’s hospital. The correspondence is hardly coincidental: for this hell is its own asylum, unleashing the id of wicked characters like Channard, Julia and Frank, while offering radical therapy to Kirsty and her fellow patient, the mute, puzzle-obsessed Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), as they both must confront and work through the traumas of their past. Channard is eventually transformed into a new Cenobite – an outlandish embodiment of medical hubris, armed with a panoply of surgical tools and determined to carve up all who come in his path (including older Cenobites like Pinhead). He is a tragic monster, convinced of his own divine powers while always being manipulated and unable to see his continuing status as puppet, both metaphorical and literal, to his own messed-up mental impulses. Cranham, a Shakespearean actor, plays the human Channard with considerable restraint – but once his character has assumed its demonic form, he lets loose with an over-the-top, expressionist performance that is almost operatic (the sustained bellowings complete this impression). 

“Yes, this is terrible,” replies Channard’s young assistant Kyle (William Hope) to Julia’s question – but he is referring to his boss’ attic space, now converted into a human charnel house. The film itself, though, is pleasingly daft, with its unforgettably strange imagery balancing a certain narrative craziness with a strong psychological subtext.

Summary: The first (and best) Hellraiser sequel takes us to an Escher-like underworld of surrealist psychodramas.

© Anton Bitel