Movie Review – Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)

Released in 1996, Hellraiser IV: Bloodline is the fourth installment and the last of the Hellraiser franchise to be released in theaters, and it is the last to have involvement from Clive Barker, who served as executive producer. Directed by Alan Smithee… oh shit, wait, that can’t be good. For those familiar with Hollywood lingo, Alan Smithee is the pseudonym directors use when they wish to have their names disassociated with a project. This immediately raises red flags that warn that the road ahead is likely to be treacherous. Primarily directed by Kevin Yagher, known for his special effects work on such iconic monsters as Freddy Krueger, the Crypt Keeper and Chucky, until he found out that Dimension Films was re-editing the movie behind his back. Yagher wanted to tell Peter Atkins’ story, which is both a prequel and a sequel to the previous films spanning centuries, in chronological order, but producers insisted on the appearance of Pinhead, which was not to happen until about half-way in, to be ever earlier in the film. Frustrated, Yagher walked out and the producers brought in Joe Chappelle to salvage the film on a limited budget. Ultimately, both Yagher and Chappelle were dissatisfied with the final feature and chose to be credited as Alan Smithee – making two directors being dissociated from the film.

The end product is indeed uneven. The wrap-around story is set on a future space station, and even the dim lighting can’t hide that the sets look cheap. By this time we’ve had Critters and Leprechaun go to space, and this can safely be seen as part of the general downward trend of 90s horror (Jason would follow soon after), as it doesn’t really add anything to the story except for exposing budget limitations. As it is, the story is often disjointed with narrative gaps, no doubt due to re-editing as entire sequences were removed to hasten Pinhead’s arrival, such as a scene in which a party of eighteenth-century aristocrats are transformed into Cenobites (never mind trying to figure out the rules of who is turned into a Cenobite and why, as the franchise doesn’t appear to know either).

The acting, too, is generally poor, with the exception being Doug Bradley’s embodiment as Pinhead. Nevertheless, Pinhead is more like the last film than the first two. No longer are the Cenobites “explorers… in the further regions of experience.” Gone are the themes of desensitization and un-fulfilled desire. In fact, Pinhead declares that “temptation is worthless… suffering is the coin of the realm.” While I enjoy seeing Pinhead, he spends most of the movie pontificating endlessly about pain to the point where he begins to become a bore.

Hellraiser IV 1996 still

However, with all of these festering flaws, there are some things that the film does right. While the primitive CGI looks dated even by the standards of 1996, the practical effects, particularly the gore ones, are superb, no doubt due to Kevin Yagher’s extensive experience. Also, while the execution is largely crippled, I whole-heartedly applaud the ambition and scope of the film. Indeed, the space scenes look cheap, but they look cheaper still when compared to the scenes set in eighteenth-century France. The sets here are exquisite and are filmed with the beauty of soft firelight. The skinning of the peasant girl and subsequent birth of the demon Angelique look terrific, and the powdered face and wig of the Duc de L’Isle, especially when paired with the chains and blood that would deface him, are menacing and haunting. In terms of aesthetics alone, the combination of aristocratic foppery and Coenobitic sadomasochism is an intriguing one at which even the Marquis de Sade might tremble.

We are introduced to the Enlightenment when the toymaker Philippe (Bruce Ramsay) talks of a hellish discovery to his medical friend who is casually carving up corpses. His friend says, “This is the eighteenth-century, Phillippe, not the Dark Ages. The world is ruled by reason – we’ve even got rid of God. And if there is no heaven, then it follows reasonably that there is no hell.” So much potential could have been made of just this simple statement: Is there a God? If so, what role does He play? If not, what is Hell’s purpose? Did man truly abandon God, or did He abandon us? Is there Salvation, or is life its own reward and Pinhead’s realm the only hereafter? Had this film been as thoughtful as the first two franchise entries, we may have had another script that tackled some very deep human questions.

Woe to us that we didn’t. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline is, in my opinion, still a step up from the previous film. It tries to be something more and mostly does not succeed, but there are still moments of great horror punctuated throughout. Like the light that emanates through the wall slats when the Cenobites arrive, inklings of what could have been a truly great movie shine through on occasion. Those flashes are short-lived and ultimately snuffed, but if ever there was a Hellraiser movie I’d like to see remade smartly, it is this one.

Grade: C-