The last of the four films in the Hellraiser series to be released theatrically, Hellraiser: Bloodline begins just about as inauspiciously as any film possibly could: over some painfully generic opening credits (not that any Hellraiser picture has enjoyed tremendously imaginative credits, mind you), we hear a piece of music that sounds a little bit like it might have had some MIDI in its gene pool; it sounds, to be blunt, like the music from a video game. A dressy video game, by 1996 standards - for 1996 is the year in which Bloodline was released - even a top of the line video game. It reminds me, specifically, of the music in Star Fox 64, without specifically resembling any particular cue from that game's soundtrack, and that was so cutting edge it didn't even come out until 1997. Still, video game music isn't what you expect from a movie that isn't based on a video game, and it augurs poorly.

So does the very last credit to flash up: "Directed by Alan Smithee". If that isn't enough to sap the oxygen out of your blood and make you curl up and die, nothing is. For those not in the know, Alan Smithee doesn't exist; it was the name provided by the Director's Guild until 1997 for projects which have run so far afoul of what the actual director wanted to make, typically because of massive executive interference, that the director wants to officially sever himself or herself from any association with the finished project. It is a desperation step, not taken terribly often over the years, that says in bold, unambiguous letters: "What you are about to see is a fucking hatchet job".

So that's two major strikes before we have seen even a single frame of actual movie. And then we see the first frame.

Hellraiser: Bloodline takes place in outer space.

Not entirely, as it turns out. Not even predominately. But the "Horror Franchise Goes to Space!" trick has been known from the first instant it was ever used (which may, in fact, have been with this very film; it beat the legendary Leprechaun 4: In Space to the punch by almost a full year) as the clearest sign of raw, animal desperation since Universal stopped throwing their monsters in a blender with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and even the least-savvy horror fan could not, at this point, expect Bloodline to be anything but pure agony, as severe a punishment as anything Pinhead himself might be able to whip up. As it turns out, that's overstating it a bit: Bloodline is a bad movie, but it's better in almost every direction than Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. At the very least, it lacks that movie's novelty Cenobites, and manages to restore something vaguely resembling order and coherence to the franchise's hallucinatory mythology.

Still, you don't get a "fuck you" much more resounding than the first two minutes of Bloodline, and nothing about the opening sequence does much to change that impression. In the year 2127, on the Space Station Minos - which looks uncommonly like a factory basement shot through a blue filter, making it arguably the most clever and original setting for a sci-fi/horror film ever - a gaunt bald man named Paul (Bruce Ramsay) manipulates a remote-controlled robot into completing the selfsame puzzle box that has been so benighting the characters in all these films; the successful opening of the box blows up the robot and brings Pinhead (Doug Bradley) briefly into existence, but just at the same moment, a group of space marines (they're never defined actually called space marines, but this being the kind of movie it is, it's likely that they're space marines) led by a woman named Rimmer (Christine Harnos). They interrupt Paul's experiment, to his great dismay: practically weeping with frustration, he sits down with Rimmer and explains that he was in the midst of a procedure that would eliminate a powerful evil from the universe, one that his very family was responsible for introducing centuries earlier.

By now, some eight minutes into the film, Bloodline has subjected the poor viewer to such a merry garden of worn-out clichés, and those executed with such little effectiveness, I would have been severely tempted to stop the movie and go out and do something useful with my life, if not for the whole bit where I was reviewing my way through a Hellraiser marathon (for Hell on Earth was still fresh in my mind, and that film's badness is not the zesty, playful badness of a Friday the 13th sequel - not even one set in space - but the sour, mercenary badness of a movie whose makers hated it almost as much as I did). My reward for muscling through was finding out that, while all of Bloodline is bad, none of it is so bad as the opening, and that there are just enough good ideas sitting around in their loneliness that you can imagine a version of this story that is actually worthwhile; maybe that's the version that director Kevin Yagher was aiming for, and it was his fury at what Dimension turned the story into that led him to demand his name be removed. (Yagher has shown up already this Summer of Blood: outside of this first and last effort in the director's chair, he was one of the main designers of the Chucky puppet in the Child's Play films).

In short, there's a toymaker in France in 1796 (or "200 years" before 1996, anyway, and it's sort of hard to imagine the story we're about to see happening in that particular country at that particular moment, what with the nation-devouring revolution and all), a certain Phillip L'Merchant* (Ramsay) has been hired by the Vicomte d'Evil (Mickey Cottrell) - that is the name I gave him in my notes, anyway, and I will not be persuaded that he has a better one - to build an ingenious puzzle box for Purposes Unknown But No Doubt Sinister. As a matter of fact, the sadistic aristocrat has found a way to open the door to Hell itself using that puzzle box, and wishes to use the aid of whatever demons he can scrounge up to continue indulging in his ghastly bloodlust. This backfires when the demon he calls into the skinned flesh of a handy peasant, a certain Angelique (Valentina Vargas) conspires with his assistant Jacques (Adam Scott) to murder the Vicomte and establish an unending reign of terror with the puzzle box as their toy for luring the souls of men into a hell dimension of eternal suffering.

That story runs out and Paul starts a new one: in 1996, another Merchant, John (still Ramsay) is a much-fêted architect who has just designed a bold new building in New York, the same one with the box in its foundations from the climax of Hell on Earth. This acts as something of a magnet for Angelique, who endeavors to make certain that the box is opened, letting Pinhead run free once again to help her create a ruling order of Cenobites to take over the world. The largest fraction of the movie takes place in 1996, as the two demons conspire to force John to help them, while engaging in low-rent terroring as like happened in Hell on Earth, but not remotely so fucking gaudy. There is no CD Cenobite, nor a Cenobite with a camera face. Eventually, we end up back in 2127, and Rimmer has apparently been convinced that the obviously insane man in front of her can be trusted, and so the film becomes a routine Alien knock-off with sadomasochistic demons subbing in for the xenomorph.

I have no idea, due to a general lack of interest, what parts of the film, specifically, cause Yagher's little heart attack, but there's no doubt at all that Bloodline is a shambles, feeling for all the world like a Hellraiser anthology film with three stories that kind of stall out rather than link in with one another; and it doesn't help that a plurality of the film's running time is stuck in 1996, easily the most pedestrian sequence. It's here that Bloodline doesn't even try to be anything other than a mid-'90s body count picture, and there is nothing redeeming about mid-'90s body count pictures. (I do, however, enjoy the tiny moment where a rubber chain prop whacks Doug Bradley right in the face, and they didn't even stop as he kind of blinked for a split second).

The other two stories, however, are at least interesting in their failure: it's not terribly vital that we know how the box came into being, nor is the explanation all that groundbreaking, but the mere fact of making what amounts to a proto-torture film set in Enlightenment France is bizarre enough that it's hard not to sit up and take notice; and I might add, it's very nice to have the increasingly tortured explanation of how and why the Cenobites and their Hell exist ignored completely, and replaced with a perfectly functional "this is a dimension of evil torturing corpse-beasts" notion. It's a hell of a lot more appealing than the idea that Pinhead was a captain in the First World War, anyway, even if the little scraps we see of the Hell dimension - a wonderfully terrible hell-hound puppet, or Cenohound if you will, and something that appears to be a Bantha, or hell, maybe it's just a different angle of the Cenohound. It's that kind of movie - make it clear that by the time of Bloodline, the Hellraiser pictures were securely in the "cheap and fast" stage of horror franchise evolution.

As for the Pinhead-in-space bit, it's not half as bad as you'd suppose: as Alien clones go, there have been many worse.

If the net result is still pretty shoddy, well... 1996. At least Doug Bradley appears to have gotten a second wind, and screenwriter Peter Atkins has endeavored to give him some lovely lines to speak in that deep down threatening bass of his - "Pain has a face. Allow me to show it to you" and "I am so exquisitely empty" are my personal favorites - and the moment when he tries to figure out what the hell the robot has to do with anything is the first genuinely successful comic moment in the Hellraiser franchise. So this is what we're reduced to: a script that pursues none of its ideas to any satisfying end, but at least it has the ideas in the first place, and a performance of an iconic monster that does nothing whatsoever new, but works as comfort food. That's not much as far as praise go, but hell: this was the generation of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and in that context, Bloodline looks like a minor masterpiece.

Body Count: 12, a blissfully straightforward answer for the convoluted franchise. There's also a dove, a robot, a hellhound, and potentially the villains - never a good idea to write off horror franchise villains in the middle of the franchise, but since this is technically the last film in the Hellraiser timeline, it's at least a point for debate.

Reviews in this series
Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Randel, 1988)
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Hickox, 1992)
Hellraiser: Bloodline (Smithee [Yagher], 1996)