It is a mathematical certitude that (the 1980s) + (horror film) + (financial success, however modest) = (instant sequel), and that equation is only strengthened when the horror film in question film boasts a leading villain who became an icon from the first instant he appeared on the posters. So the existence of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, in one form or another, certainly oughtn't surprise us in any way. On the other hand, it's no mere formulaic Friday the 13th or Prom Night picture we're talking about here: Hellraiser is nothing if not one of the more peculiar and particular horror films of the late-'80s (or indeed, ever), and it would be next to impossible for it to end up with just another factory-processed follow-up like any given slasher, especially with the perverse visionary Clive Barker standing by to executive produce and write the story, and thereby presumably ensure that the new film would hew close to the world he created with his impressive debut.

It does and it doesn't, and I'm not saying that just out of the love for a good bit of rhetorical flourish. After a great deal of staring at my notes, and comparing them to various other plot synopses of the film, I have been compelled to give up and admit that, as near as I can make out, Hellbound is effectively two separate mini-movies joined together. The first is a straightforward attempt to continue the story of Hellraiser that frequently doesn't work very well, breaking too many of what appeared to be the "rules" as laid out through implication in the original movie; but it is, anyway, easy enough to follow along and see how it extends the narrative in ways that are honest, at least, even if they are also contrived. The second movie comes along, says "fuck you, first movie", and runs screaming off the deep end. It at this point ceases to pay attention to the cosmology of the original Hellraiser much at all (though in this, I am perhaps actually saying that it ceases to pay attention to the cosmology of the source novella, The Hellbound Heart), and ceases also to follow such petty narrative rules as "it must be clear what is happening, to whom, where, and why". In fact, the last 40 or 45 minutes of the 99-minute Hellbound are as wildly incoherent as I have ever seen in a movie that wasn't being explicitly marketed to an arthouse audience. And it's in this second mini-movie that Hellbound ends up rising to the occasion as a thoroughly worthy successor to the freakishly original Hellraiser even as it gives up trying to be any kind of narrative or metaphysical exegesis that can be comfortably reconciled with that film; it's exactly as a result of the brutally intense violation of any kind of linearity or story clarity that Hellbound gets to create a vision of Hell as disorienting and original as the depiction of demons and suffering that made Hellraiser such a treat.

The movie opens three times: first, the word Hellraiser appears onscreen, followed by a scattershot collage of moments from the climax of that film. Then, in a dusky room with a curved ceiling, a man (Doug Bradley) opens that same magical box from the first movie, and it plunges him into a negative space where nails are driven into his face according to a grid carved into his very skin. Thirdly, and finally, we join up with the cops investigating the scene of the massacre that ended the first film, and proceed thence to the sanitarium (based on the visible evidence, I gather it is named St. Mattepainting) where they have deposited Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) to recover from whatever horrible trauma has led her to invent these impossible ravings about monsters and dead uncles stealing her father's flesh, and portals to other dimensions.

Unluckily for Kirsty, she's been placed under the care of Dr. Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a brain specialist with a Dark Secret: he's a little bit too interested in the variety of ways that human beings can suffer, and we'll find out, eventually, that he has quite a little collection of drawings and news clippings about those ghastly beings who tormented Kirsty so. This doesn't happen until after a healthy serving of exposition: we have to meet the strange mute girl Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), who loves to solve puzzles of every shape and design; and Kyle (William Hope), the intern, or med student, or some such, assisting Channard; and we have to see the hideous, skinless form of Kirsty's dad appear in her hospital room and scrawl "I AM IN HELL HELP ME" on her wall in her own blood. Impressively, where your average or garden-variety horror director would have cut from Kirsty's shocked expression at seeing this apparition back to the blank, virgin wall, Barker's protégé Tony Randel* cuts back to show the skinless zombie has vanished, but the bloody words remain - it's a tiny violation of cliché that gets to be just that much more shocking and creepy because it breaks the rules so cunningly.

Now, Kyle does not trust Channard, given the older man's general aura of sliminess, and creeps into the doctor's house, right around the time that the viscera-soaked mattress from the bloodbath that Kirsty so narrowly escape shows up; we've already seen Channard bribe the men who were meant to take said mattress to the police, though it's only now that we start to figure out why. Taking a twitchy schizophrenic (Oliver Smith) who sees bugs all over his body, and handing him a straight razor, Channard steps back to let nature take its course, and as the poor man's blood gushes all over the bed, what should happen, but the grotesque, skinless form of Julia, Kirsty's evil stepmother, should reconstitute itself (skinless Julia is played by Deborah Joel; when she finally gets back up to 100%, she'll again be played by Clare Higgins).

Julia immediately takes to seducing Channard, who lovingly wraps her up in bandages to give her some semblance of human form; and then she sets him on the task of finding her lots of warm bodies, that she may feed on her blood and regain her strength. Since her new boyfriend happens to have literally dozens of variously catatonic, psychotic, schizophrenic, and otherwise hidden-away victims at his disposal, this takes very little time, and by the time Kyle brings this intel to Kirsty, and they sneak into Channard's house to investigate, it's a little late to do anything. Worse still, Channard has brought Tiffany to his museum of horrors: not to kill her, but to have her unlock the puzzle box that calls the demonoid Cenobites into our dimension.

Here we will pause.

Up to this point, I will not lie, I was absolutely Not Feeling It. Creepy, yes; visceral graphic and horrifying, yes; but Hellbound was suffering from all the common maladies of the unnecessary '80s horror sequel, it just happened to be suffering them in a classier way than usual. The first film is recapped in a blast of stock footage puked up with out the slightest hint of imagination, placed in Kirsty's mouth despite the heroic amount of guessing she'd have to make to match our level of knowledge. There's the oh-so-common trick of bringing back the villain (Julia, in this case) through a dose of bald-faced bullshitting - sure, we know from before that blood will revive the hellbound victim, but it seemed at the time that Julia was just being killed in a rather perfunctory way, not being enslaved by the Cenobites at all, and rather more on a staircase than on a bed. Though, given that the Cenobites and their hell dimension don't apparently work the way they used to, there's no point in getting bothered about such niceties. And in generally, first-time screenwriter Peter Atkins doesn't do much of anything to flesh out Barker's script, instead pouncing from plot point to plot point

Randel's direction is less pointed than Barker's; the acting is on a noticeably lower level, and in particular Laurence's reedy, shrill performance is left completely unmodulated. And in a way I can't quite put my finger on, the whole thing feels somehow cheaper, a wee bit more amateurish in conceit and execution, despite many of the same crew, most crucially Robin Vidgeon as cinematographer and Christopher Young as composer, returning from the first film. All of their contributions are somehow less so this time around, a bit thinner, a bit blander. There are compensating moments, such as that corpse vision, or the Grand Guignol excess of Julia's rebirth scene, or the sound design in the scenes where Chennard visits his personal collection of the tormented in the hospital's subbasement. There are not, however, enough of them to keep the film from pitching its tent on the slope of Mt. Arbitrary, where the bones of so many sequel-makers have been stripped bare by the pitiless Arctic wind.

And then, just when it's about time to give up on the thing, Tiffany opens the puzzle box, the world explodes, Pinhead (Doug Bradley again - which means, yes, that the opening scene is his origin story, and how badly I wish it weren't) steps forth to taunt Kirsty, and a disjointed carnival tune plays from out of nowhere. And as Tiffany and Kirsty rather unwisely saunter right into the ancient stone tunnels that mark the outskirts of Cenobite Hell, Hellbound stretches and shakes itself off and decides it's had enough with being an '80s sequel, and it would be much more fun to be a Italian "portal to Hell" movie instead.

I can't explain what happens in the last not-quite-half of the film. Oh, I could write out in neat little sentences the events depicted, but how they relate to anything, and how many of them happen in "reality" vs. how many are in dreams or in a hell-spawned hallucination, I do not care to guess. Nor, frankly, do I care. What Randel and crew achieved in this second portion of Hellbound is the closest any American horror movie of my knowledge has come to the nightmare surrealism of The Beyond and its ilk; it's a colossal understatement to say that this kind of thing isn't for every taste, but love it or hate it, there's surely nothing like it. Hellbound is, of a certainty, not as good as The Beyond. It's not even as good as City of the Living Dead, or at least it lacks the potency of that film's images, which is the same thing. For one thing, the film's idea of Hell is disappointingly straightforward: it's a giant stone labyrinth with a huge geometric shard hovering over it like the final boss in TRON. Weirdly, this representation becomes more effective as the film goes on, not less; perhaps because the deliberately confusing editing gives the impression that the stone pathways go on forever and don't connect to each other in meaningful ways.

And certainly, the gut-wrenching body horror that kicks in does more than its share to make Hellbound sickening and disturbing in all the right ways. If Hellraiser is a little Cronenbergian here and there, its sequel verily outdoes the master, with a villain who combines the organic with the metal in the most unnerving ways, and who attacks Kirsty and Tiffany with what looks unmistakably like sentient penises tipped with razor blades. If that phrase doesn't at least perk your interest, I think I can safely guarantee that Hellbound is not a movie you would like very much; and that's not a bad thing. Just typing it out made me feel a little bit gross.

Memorable, though, the movie is undeniably that. And depictions of Hell aren't meant to be comforting, are they? I won't pretend that it doesn't rankle that, when all is said and done, the film's "explanations" are more confusing than anything, and it would be kind of nice to know for certain exactly who or what is alive at the end. But when it comes down to it, the big problem with Hellbound is that it's not bizarre and challenging and disgusting enough, that it spends too much time spinning its wheels when it can be handling the important business of planting nightmare seeds deep in the viewer's brain.

Body Count: It beggars my ability to count. The maximum number one could possibly count up is 29, but that includes way too many asterisks: starting with 15 bodies that are already dead when we see them in hellish tableaux, and the 3 deaths seen in footage from the first movie, and the 2 characters who are already dead when they "die", and the apparent demise of characters who come back later in the series. Nor does the endless surrealism of the back half help much. The best I can do is to express it as a range, 5-29, and my instinct tells me the "official" count is near the lower end of that spectrum.

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