Joseph Thorne, a corrupt Denver police detective, finds his world starting to unravel when he and his partner Tony Nenonen pull a strange murder case involving the gruesome death of one of Thorne’s high school classmates, a bizarre BDSM ritual, and an intriguing puzzle box. The murder appears to be connected to a near-mythical local crime lord known only as the Engineer, and Thorne becomes obsessed with finding him. As his investigation progresses, Thorne becomes prone to brutal nightmares and horrifying hallucinations, and the Engineer begins killing those close to him. But who, exactly, is the Engineer and what’s his connection to the box and the enigmatic monsters who follow in its wake? Thorne will discover that the answer lies closer to home than he realized…
In theory, Hellraiser: Inferno has the potential to be the shot in the arm the franchise needed. After two less-than-inspiring sequels (one laughably bad, the other merely mediocre) that put too much focus on the backstory of Pinhead, the Cenobites and the Lament Configuration, director and co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson (also responsible for The Exorcism Of Emily Rose and Sinister) drop-kicks the mythology, sidelines Pinhead (Doug Bradley only appears in three scenes and doesn’t speak until the end of the final act) and rejects the idea of the Cenobites as novelty monsters (DJ Cenobite, anyone?) in favor of an old-school approach that brings them back to the twin influencing aesthetics of punk rock body modification and BDSM.
Despite a few directorial mistakes (a hooker goes to sleep for the night without taking her bra off first, easily the least realistic thing I’ve seen in any movie, ever) and not-entirely-credible acting (Nightbreed’s Craig Sheffer, as Thorne, never seems quite charming enough to pull his character off), the the direction, while not great, is certainly impressive, including some great camera work. In one of the film’s most chilling shots, Sheffer bears an uncanny resemblance to Sean Chapman, who played Frank in the original Hellraiser. (Decking Sheffer out in a leather jacket and skinny tie adds to the effect.)
Similarly, when taken out of context, the story–most of it–is sound. The plotting is effective and suspenseful; characterization is strong, and Inferno gets a lot of mileage in being about people instead of Cenobites (one of the biggest problems with III and Bloodline is that Pinhead is the lead villain instead of a complicating factor). The problem is that while Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman are more than happy to play with the franchise’s iconography, they have no inclination to explore the themes beneath the surface. There’s a couple of strange sex scenes and a sequence set at a body-piercing studio in the first act, but that’s all pushed aside to give the filmmakers room to tell the story they really want to tell.
Which turns out to be a morality play. Too many actors stop playing characters and start shouting the story’s themes at each other, the Cenobites dole out justice, and Pinhead delivers the moral of the story as if it’s one of Aesop’s fables. This would be hard stuff to choke down even if it wasn’t the fifth film in an established series, but amongst this particular set of films it’s particularly jarring. One of the biggest problems with the series as the Cenobites shifted from “inter-dimensional sensualists who have discovered the point where extreme pleasure and extreme pain become the same thing” to “demons from Hell” is that the morality has become a lot more black-and-white and thus less interesting. (See my point about the series’ villains above.)
So as much as I want to respect the film’s final twist, the problem is that twist is the culmination of the film’s gradual shift away from what made it a Hellraiser movie to begin with. As wrong as the idea of Cenobites as quip killers or unstoppable monsters seems, it’s even more wrong for them to appear as agents of, if not divine, at least moral (in a metaphysical sense) justice. It’s almost as if Boardman and Derrickson conceived Inferno as a non-franchise project that they later shoehorned Hellraiser elements into.
Despite all this criticism, Hellraiser: Inferno is actually a fairly well-made and enjoyable film. Just don’t think about it, and how it connects to the Cenobite themes, too much.
My rating: 4 of 10.
99 minutes. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Craig Sheffer, Nicholas Turturro, James Remar, Doug Bradley.