“I am pain.” — Pinhead
The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
Let’s start at the top: I’m a Pinhead fan. (On a side note, you can definitely anagram that into “I am pain.”) Anyway, I saw the 1987 original when I was young and impressionable, like 8 or 9 years old. It was one of the first films I owned on tape after I learned to use the automatic setting on our recorder. Fox 31 only aired the Clive Barker original at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m., just like Candyman and the Halloween sequels, and of course it was edited to the bone. I had no idea just how graphically gruesome/incredible the final scene of Hellraiser was until I found it at Blockbuster a few years later.
Hellraiser: Bloodline was one of the first films I recorded after falling in love with the original. For total newbies, the Pinhead franchise (named for the titular demon with a fetish for facial acupuncture) was Saw before Saw existed. The mythology is thick yet not particularly intelligent, just like the plotting and dialogue and performance. But the blood runs thick as hell, and for gore hounds it doesn’t get any better than an hour and a half of solid sex, torture and black magic.The sequels took these elements to ridiculous extremes, beginning with Bloodline, but unlike its sterile counterparts in the mid-2000s, the early installments had theatrical flair.
As the fourth in a still-growing line of sequels, Bloodline had the dubious task of telling the Hellraiser origin story. That’s not exactly a bad thing — just mandatory. And, like so much in the franchise, it’s alternately inspired and just plain corny. It takes the bulletproof hook from the original — a mysterious box acts as a portal to the deepest, sickest depths of hell — and tells us exactly how it was made, tracing the origins of said box across 300 years of the L’Merchant (aka Toymaker) bloodline. Clever title, right?
The films kicks off in deep space at some kind of installation. We eventually learn that it was built by Dr. Paul Merchant, the great-great-grandson of John Merchant, an architect in 1996, who was the great-great-great-grandsomething of Philip L’Merchant, an 19th century toymaker in lush period France. This Hellraiser loves its costumes and props, so much that you forget the original was no more than a domestic horrorshow like The Amittyville Horror. Also, all three Merchants are played by the same actor, Bruce Ramsay. He’s not bad.
For some reason, a group of commandos/demon-fodder boards the installation and takes Merchant hostage. Bad idea: He had just activated the box and, at the same time, released Pinhead & Co. But no worries, he still has time to tell the history of his bloodline (heh) in loving detail. First came the original Toymaker, L’Merchant, hired by a rich French poof with a thing for black magic. The poof and his cohort, a very young and completely American Adam Scott (he of Parks and Rec) lure a young prostitute to a posh mansion for a test-drive of the Toymaker’s box. Needless to say it works, and the prostitute becomes a fleshy vessel for Angelique, a princess of the underworld and the first demon to favor seduction over torture. Papa Pinhead don’t like that.
Fast forward about a century and we meet John Merchant, a famous architect who’s latest masterpiece looks oddly like a skyscraper-sized version of his ancestor’s box. Angelique spots him in a magazine and promptly kills Adam Scott, who for some reason was made immortal when he killed his poof master and became Angelique’s fuck buddy. Or something. That part is never fully explained, but it leads to death by demon talon, so I’ll roll with it. (At least Paul Rudd lasted longer when he tried horror for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.)
After a lot of present-day action we know will eventually lead to the space installation, we arrive back at the space installation (surprise!) to see if space-age Merchant can finally shut the gateway to Hell that his ancestor helped open. And whaddaya know, the installation looks curiously like a flattened box.
Where I found it
On Netflix, along with just about every other Hellraiser, although a few are randomly missing for some reason. Sometimes their horror catalog makes absolutely no sense.
Why it caught my eye
It’s Hellraiser: Bloodline, and I haven’t seen it since I owned it on recorded tape and had to skip past commercials for Folgers coffee. Duh.
To be honest, I think this film works on every level. Is it great art? No. Is it a piece of dogshit? Hell no. It just does what ’90s horror did so well: a little bit of everything. We get eye-catching period costumes during the origin scenes, not to mention one of the most intense bits of body horror I’ve ever come across. How does Angelique inhabit the prostitute’s body? Her essence or whatever fills the hallowed out shell of skin her earthbound summoner has hung from his ceiling with meathooks, but only after he graphically gutted her with 19th century saws and shit. Nasty.
Then, we get a bit of modern-day action with John Merchant, complete with plenty of meaningless domestic drama. Is ’96 Merchant really secretly hooking up with the mysterious Angelique, still in her French prostitute body? Or is it all in his wife’s head? Truth is, it doesn’t matter in a horror film like this. It’s simply something to fill the gaps between Pinhead and his meat hooks.
The film spends a bit too much time with ’96 Merchant — probably cheaper to film on a present-day sound stage — which means it does a shabby job of setting up stakes for his family, aside from the fact that Pinhead needs the Toymaker bloodline to build a bigger, better box. And that’s where clever space-age Merchant comes in. As soon as the commandos arrived, I knew they’d meet their end at some point, so no need to explain how stoked I was when five quickly drawn soldiers showed up. Five demon deaths in the last 15 minutes, including one at the hands of twin security guards who Pinhead grafted into Siamese Satans? Yes please.
Apparently, origin story meant “give Pinhead shitloads of dialogue” to someone in the Bloodline production room. It works on occasion, like when Pinhead asks the ’96 merchant if he wants to play a game. But that only works because it pokes plenty of pin-sized holes in the derivative Saw franchise, so back in 1996, it might have come across as cheesy. Whenever he’s on screen, Pinhead flits somewhere between Emperor Palpatine and vaudeville comedian. He follows up demon badassery (think Palpatine that shoots metal spikes instead of lightening) with one-liners about chasing the Toymaker bloodline (“Is that how you greet an old friend of the family?” he says when the space Merchant tries to destroy him).
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of the original Pinhead. The character itself has been played by the same actor for years, and Doug Bradley does an incredible job conveying the visceral look and black energy of a soulless, pitiless demon. But, when turned into a mouthpiece for vague musings on pain and death and God — man, there are so many “God doesn’t exist here” variations — he loses most of his menace. I don’t know, call me a cranky old bitch, but I miss the looming presence of the original Pinhead. Like the xenomorph in Alien or Jaws in Jaws, Pinhead works best when he’s kept in the shadows. He should frighten, not preach, and Bloodline turns him into a star. Guess that’s the price of horror success.
Hellraiser: Bloodline isn’t the best installment in the series, but it also isn’t the worst. It’s just entertaining from start to finish, with more body horror, graphic gore and Pinhead than you can shake a meat hook at. And I like that.