Arrow Video wants fans to experience the pleasures contained within their recent The Scarlet Box limited edition set featuring the first three Hellraiser films in HD as well as a bounty of special features that will keep you busy for hours on end. If you’ve been looking to add Clive Barker’s influential and unforgettable original Hellraiser film—or its first two sequels—to your home media collections, you can’t go wrong with The Scarlet Box.
Some things have to be endured. That’s what makes the pleasure so sweet.
Barker’s Hellraiser, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, pushed the boundaries of cinematic horror in ways audiences had never experienced before. Based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, Barker’s feature film adaptation introduces us to Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), whose soul is transported to a hellish dimension after acquiring a mysterious puzzle box that summons demonic forces. After Frank’s disappearance, his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Larry’s new wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into the family home of the estranged brothers, where they discover that Larry’s notorious sibling has been using the house as a hangout.
Another surprise to Larry, and his bright-eyed daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), is the revelation that Julia had previously had an affair with Frank, fueling a desire to help her former lover once he returns to our dimension in search of skin and a way to escape the Cenobites that he summoned with the puzzle box. Frank enlists the easily swayed Julia to help him with his dastardly plan, but Frank and Julia’s misdeeds catch up with them when the Cenobites show up, and poor Kirsty becomes caught in the middle of it all.
Hellraiser was undoubtedly a landmark moment for horror in many ways. Much like the Cenobites themselves, Barker’s feature directorial debut pushed the envelope in the realms of both pleasure and pain to make for an experience unlike anything fans had ever seen before. While the film may have introduced us to a quartet of unforgettable otherworldly figures (five, if you count The Engineer), it’s the familial dysfunction of the Cotton family that is front and center in Hellraiser, and what I love most about Barker’s story is how aspects of it feel as though Shakespeare had written the most f***ked up Grimm’s fairy tale.
Laurence, as Kirsty, provides Hellraiser with an emotional center to balance out the film’s grittier aspects, and she gives a great performance here, making Kirsty truly one of the more underappreciated horror heroines of the last several decades. Higgins, playing her version of the wicked stepmother archetype, is great as well, especially in early scenes when she’s still conflicted about helping Frank, but her character Julia truly goes to another level in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which outshines her work in the original (but more on that later).
Hellraiser might be rough around the edges (particularly in the film’s first 30 minutes, in which the pacing is somewhat jarring), but there’s no denying the impact Barker’s visionary project has continued to have on the horror genre and pop culture as well.
Movie Score: 4/5
It’s not hands that call us… it is desire.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II picks up right after the events of the first film, with Barker handing the directorial reins over to Tony Randel, who does a magnificent job of opening up the world of the Cenobites, giving us even more of the franchise’s anti-heroes and introducing us to both their realm and one of the greatest villains to be a part of the Hellraiser universe.
At the start of the sequel, we catch up with Kirsty, who is now a patient at the Channard Institute, a psychiatric hospital run by the endlessly curious Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), whose deep obsession with the labyrinthine puzzles of the mind only rivaled by his desperate fascination with unlocking the secrets of the Lament Configuration (the puzzle box featured in the original Hellraiser). After hearing Kirsty’s unbelievable story, and realizing how close he is to finally breaking through to the Cenobites’ dimension, he resurrects Julia (Higgins) and utilizes a young patient named Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) to help him with his perilous intentions.
But, in typical Hellraiser fashion, we quickly see just how dangerous it can be to mess with the Lament Configuration, as the Cenobites are released, Channard gets more than he bargains for with Julia, and Kirsty sets out to try and save her father, who she believes is trapped in the hellish prison ruled by Leviathan after he was brutally killed by Frank and Julia in the prior film.
Where Hellraiser was mostly self-contained horror, primarily taking place in one location, Hellbound goes bigger than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way, and the results are astounding. For as much as Hellraiser absolutely shocked me as a kid, I was equally enamored with Hellbound’s nightmarish surrealism and unique sense of savage eloquence (the reunion scene between Kirsty and Uncle Frank, or the moment when Julia sees herself in a mirror for the first time since being reanimated are perfect examples of this). I will fully admit that I watched Hellraiser II way more than the first Hellraiser as a kid, just because its haunting imagery was something I couldn’t get enough of (and still can’t).
Hellbound: Hellraiser II also provides us with another Cenobite for Kirsty to contend with once Julia hands Channard over to the Leviathan, fulfilling the twisted physician’s desire to experience all the pleasures and pain that Hell has to offer. Cranham is an excellent villain in human form, but once he transitions into his otherworldly persona, that’s when the sequel gets really fun.
Barker, who handled a lot of the story elements in Hellbound, also provides the endlessly fascinating Cenobites with a hint of a backstory—just enough to give us a sense of their humanity that once existed before they, too, fell victim to the lure of the Lament Configuration. It was a genius move on Barker’s part, and it ended up playing heavily into the script for Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, which was released four years later.
Movie Score: 4/5
I'm here to turn up the volume. To press the stinking face of humanity into the dark blood of its own secret heart.
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is the first (and last) Hellraiser I got to see in a theater, and to be blunt, I absolutely hated it when I saw it back then. To me, Hell on Earth was missing the gritty elegance of the first two Hellraiser films, and the duality of Pinhead just felt so out of line compared to what we had seen from Doug Bradley’s now iconic Hell Priest on previous occasions.
The last time I watched Hell on Earth was probably in high school, so viewing it as part of The Scarlet Box after all these years may have softened my view on the sequel a bit, as I certainly enjoyed it more now than I did back in the early ’90s. That being said, when you view it as part of a double feature with its immediate predecessor, Hell on Earth’s missteps are glaringly apparent in comparison.
Directed by Anthony Hickox, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth finds Pinhead trapped within the confines of the Pillar of Souls, the tablet statue that appeared during the final moments of Hellbound. The pillar is now in the possession of a douchey Goth club owner by the name of J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt), who uses his wealth and influence to cater to his own selfish desires. The Pillar comes to the attention of Joey (Terry Farrell), a reporter looking to make a name for herself, and who also happens to be plagued by the horrific dreams of men dying on a battlefield.
As Joey gets closer to uncovering the truth behind the statue and the powerful entities contained within it, Pinhead emerges and tempts J.P. with unimaginable power as his way of breaking free from his stone prison. Once the Cenobite finally makes his way into our world, it’s up to Joey to find a way to appeal to Captain Spencer (the man Pinhead once was) and what remains of his humanity before Hell is unleashed (yeah, you guessed it) on Earth.
Since I have a deep appreciation for anything with an air of ’90s nostalgia to it, Hell on Earth ended up being a lot more fun this time around for me, even if it’s a subpar follow-up to Hellraiser II in almost every possible way. Production feels cheapened, the character of Joey is so poorly written that she almost gets lost amongst the sequel’s more intriguing characters, and Pinhead being able to play around in the dream realm in Hellraiser III just felt a little too reminiscent of another popular horror icon.
That being said, Hell on Earth does give Bradley a lot more fun to have with the role of Pinhead, as he taunts and teases his potential victims. While I’m not a huge fan of how the character’s psyche gets splintered the way it does here, I appreciate the fact that the film tried to incorporate one of Hellraiser II’s most intriguing elements—seeing Pinhead as a human prior to his transformation—and as an older fan with a bit more wisdom under my belt now, it’s hard for me to truly dislike anything that gives Bradley more of an opportunity to branch out as a performer, both in and out of Pinhead makeup. Also, the special effects in Hellraiser III are top-notch, and it was great to see that they’ve held up over time (although the sight of the CD Cenobite will always be downright ridiculous to me).
Oh, and mad props to Hellraiser III for going full metal for their soundtrack, too. I had forgotten the film featured the likes of Motörhead, KMFDM, and the Soup Dragons, making for a fun moment of rediscovery for me.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
As far as box sets go, Arrow Video goes all out for their Scarlet Box limited edition trilogy, and you can spend almost an entire day just going through all the special features included here (which is what I did). Not only do you get the recent Leviathan documentary created for the original Hellraiser just a few years ago, but each film’s disc also includes multiple commentary tracks and tons of supplemental material that, for the most part, entertains and informs (although I’m still scratching my head at including body mod community members in one of the featurettes for Hellraiser—it just feels weirdly out of place on this release). The biggest draw for me was the inclusion of the infamous surgeon scene from Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which I hadn’t seen prior to this set. It’s rough, but still pretty awesome to watch if you’re a big fan of the film.
Hellraiser III’s disc includes the unrated cut of the sequel (found on the extras menu), and while it was interesting to see more of the effects at play, the extra footage doesn’t do much to improve upon the overall film. Still, the fact that Arrow includes it here is pretty great, and they clearly wanted to make sure fans of the Hellraiser franchise were given almost anything they could have possibly wanted in this limited edition trilogy set.
One thing that was a little disappointing was the quality of some of the footage in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which was so noisy at times that it completely took me out of the experience. It only really happens during the flashback scenes featuring Frank and Julia, though, as the rest of the transfer looks stellar.
As a whole, Hellraiser fans have a lot to rejoice about when it comes to what Arrow has put together for The Scarlet Box Blu-ray set. This would make an excellent addition to the home entertainment collection of any fans of the franchise that want to immerse themselves in almost every aspect of these first three Hellraiser films.
Box Set Score: 4/5