There are two names of interest in this, the fourth instalment of what is almost by default the best of the long-running horror franchises. First up is Adam Scott, comedy superstar, in what I think is his first movie role (he’d been in a few TV shows before this); and second is Alan Smithee. Smithee is the pseudonym adopted by directors who want their name taken off a particular film, usually to do with an extreme amount of interference from the studio or the producer, and is almost always a message to the savvy cinemagoer “this is going to suck”. It seems the principal issue with part 4 – the last in the series to have any input from Clive Barker, or to get a cinema release – was Pinhead. Audiences wanted more of him, and earlier (it is a bit weird how little he’s in the first movie, if we’re being honest), which wasn’t the way original director Kevin Yagher was going.
Although it was reviewed more favourably than part 3 at the time, the years have been unkind to part 4, perhaps because it’s partly set in space. Both “Friday The 13th” and “Leprechaun” have similar instalments, so it was a trend for a while there with the joke being that once you’ve run out of ideas for your fictional killer, send them to space! Or maybe the bad reputation’s because it’s no good? You’ll have to wait a few hundred words to find out (unless you’ve already seen it and are just reading this for a bit of entertainment, of course).
In the year 2127, Dr Paul Merchant has hijacked the space station Minos, for reasons unknown. With a rather interesting remote control robot device, he’s trying to open the Lament Configuration – the fancy name for the puzzle box, apparently – and just as he does so, the front door is kicked in (metaphorically speaking) and in rush some marines. He’s captured, while screaming that he needs to be let free to complete what he started, and eventually is questioned by Rimmer (Christine Harnos), who he tells his family story to.
This story is, actually, pretty interesting. In late 18th century France, his ancestor Philippe L’Marchand (all the Merchant men are played by the same actor) has been commissioned to make a puzzle box for a wealthy aristocrat who has some rather unusual tastes. Scott plays Jacques, the aristo’s servant, and he’s the guy who procures a peasant girl for them to use in their experiments. The box is opened, the skin removed from the peasant girl gets filled up with the demon Angelique and the aristo very quickly breaks one of the rules of possessing a demon and is killed, leaving Jacques to control Angelique and enjoy the wonders of rough sex with a bag of demon-filled skin. Philip learns what the box is about quite quickly, and even creates a design for a “reverse box” which will close the gate to Hell forever, but he’s offed by our evil duo before he gets the chance to do much of anything about it.
In the “original cut” of the movie, as much as this can be said to have one, there was a lot more of this storyline (and there’s a cut circulating online which puts a lot of these deleted scenes back in); but people wanted Pinhead, so we need to race ahead to 1996, where Angelique and Jacques are still having weird sex in France. This is where the movie quite cleverly dovetails with part 3, as we see the building that was “created” when the box was placed in the foundations of a building site. Well, it wasn’t just the power of the box, it was also John Merchant, direct male line descendant of Philip and architect, who was drawn to the box due to some dumb bloodline curse or something. He’s married to Bobbi, played by Kim Myers (“A Nightmare On Elm Street 2”, and a youthful crush of mine), and rather than just going “this is a pretty decent life, I’m an architect and I’m married to someone who looks like Kim Myers” he starts dreaming of Angelique, then she shows up at his office after Jacques rather foolishly got in Hell’s way, and tempts him with her alluring demonic ways…
Pinhead eventually shows up when the box is opened (by a tricked security guard), and he’s got kind of a funny office co-workers vibe going on with Angelique when they first meet. She’s old-school Hell, having been away for 200 years, he’s more new-school, but they both want to use the building, which has become a sort of ultimate cube, in order to…well, Pinhead wants to throw the gates of Hell wide open and let all his old mates out, but I’m stumped as to Angelique’s motivation. Perhaps the same? It’s not really important, anyway. I was surprised Pinhead wouldn’t have popped in to say hello to Angelique during one of his visits “topside”, but Earth’s a big place, I suppose. They have very different methods, she favouring seduction and corruption, him favouring lots of pain and misery, and if this idea had been developed any more than it was (ie. Not at all) then it would have been a cool thread running through the stories. Instead, they have a bit of a fight and Pinhead wins.
As we get back to 2127 and the space station, the problem then becomes we know exactly what Merchant’s plan is and are merely waiting for him to press a button. What takes up 20 minutes of screen time could have been dealt with easily in five, but I guess we need some Pinhead pontificating and / or ripping people to pieces or the “fans” won’t be happy. The ending is pretty cool actually (I always like it when super-powerful beings are tricked by modern technology) but it’s a long walk for a relatively small reward.
Let’s try and make some sense of the Hellraiser universe. It’s really quite good, starting from a small dingy bedroom on a nondescript London street and spreading all the way to outer space. Humanity tries and fails to close the door on the Cenobites, because they represent temptation and there’s always going to be temptation, and it takes a mad genius with cursed blood to finish them off – he has to build a massive space station to do it. It’s surprisingly logical in terms of overarching story, if you don’t sweat the little things, like how the box became a portal to Hell, or the gradual change of the Cenobites from creatures from outside our realm to demons who were once human. Although…given the hack Clive Barker turned into from the early 90s on, I’m sort of glad they simplified the story of the Cenobites from whatever it was to creatures of a dimension called Hell, but which was just a place where weird entities with a thing about skin hung out.
There are little visual touches I enjoyed too, like the way Hell is shown as light through cracks in a building, the same as it was right at the beginning of the first movie. The ties to the previous movies are clever, and Pinhead remains one of the all-time great horror antagonists, even if he’s not the most logically written character – for example, he sort of betrays his own previous commitment to not mess with the innocent by kidnapping John’s son in the 1996 story.
The problem with the way it was weighted, with all three stories given roughly equal time, is that it feels a bit like “stories from the Hellraiser universe”, an anthology movie. Considering this was edited by professionals who are presumably told to make sure things make sense, there are a ton of dropped threads in this, ideas which show up and disappear again in short order, and it’s tough to shake the thought they really ought to have trimmed one of them down a bit.
I was going to talk about the Alan Smithee credit, but I think I’ll leave that to a longer review of the workprint version, which I’ve managed to track down. But even in this hacked-about-with story, it’s a great deal better than many movies where the director was happy to leave his name attached. It’s got real ideas and wants to explore them, and while I’m not as down on studio interference as some (having no particular admiration for the vast majority of directors), it will be interesting to get a little closer to what the director was trying to do.
Rating: thumbs up