Movie Review – Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

Scott Derrickson’s Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) is the fifth entry in the Hellraiser franchise and the first, but certainly not the last, to be released straight to home video. The story focuses on corrupt Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer), who snorts cocaine and cheats on his wife with hookers. While investigating a crime scene which appears to involve ritual murder, he finds the Lament Configuration and a candle with a child’s severed finger in it. It isn’t long before the conveniently puzzle-loving detective solves the box and begins to be haunted by horrific images which lead him to question his sanity. The film’s narrative and imagery borrow heavily from 1990’s effectively psychological Jacob’s Ladder. Like the Hellraiser films which follow, this script was originally disconnected with the franchise until rewrites forcibly placed, to uneven success, the Lament Configuration and Pinhead.

Clive Barker, the franchise creator, had nothing to do with the movie and was very vocal about his dislike of it. He criticized the movie, especially, for the direction in which it took the Lament Configuration and Cenobite mythology. In August of 2000 he told an interviewer: “[Hellraiser: Inferno] is terrible. It pains me to say things like that because nobody sets out in the morning to make a bad movie… They said we really don’t want your opinion on it we are going to make the movie. So they went and made the movie, and it is just an abomination. I want to actively go on record as saying I warn people away from the movie. It’s really terrible and it’s shockingly bad, and should never have been made.”

In the following month Derrickson responded: “[Clive’s] reaction, I must admit, was not entirely unexpected. The Hellraiser franchise had (in my opinion) travelled too far in one direction and had quite simply run out of steam. The only interesting path to take in creating another sequel seemed to be the path of total reinvention. Of course Clive Barker isn’t going to appreciate that. I never expected that he would appreciate seeing the treasured iconography of his brainchild tossed out the window and replaced with a whole new set of rules. But it seems to me that I made a movie that is too good or at least too provocative for him to just simply dismiss… This is, in fact, a very good film. It is philosophically ambitious (unlike Hellraiser II, III, or IV), and it represents a moral framework outside that of the previous Hellraiser films and (apparently) outside that of Clive Barker’s personal taste. Quite simply, I subverted Clive Barker’s franchise with a point of view that he does not share, and I think that really pisses him off.”

To be honest, I had no knowledge of this feud prior to watching the film, but when it was complete I felt compelled to look into how Barker felt about the changes that were made to the Hellraiser mythos, and I found that his sentiments very much mirrored my own. In the first two films the Cenobites and Hell existed but we so no evidence of Heaven. Hell wasn’t a place to punish the wicked, but was a realm where people’s own desires and fears created a torturous prison perfectly suited to themselves. The Cenobites weren’t purposefully cruel, but were unable to distinguish pleasure from pain – it was the extremes of experience which they sought and in which they dealt. Concepts such as sin were irrelevant – there were only sensations in their varying forms. Pinhead’s God was the Leviathan, “God of flesh, hunger, and desire.”

In the next two films Pinhead took center-stage and was in turns defiant or dismissive of God and Christianity. He seemingly forgot about temptation and became obsessed with inflicting pain, and everyone appeared deserving of his particular talents. He mocked Christ’s passion and asked, “Do I look like someone who cares what God thinks?”

In Hellraiser: Inferno, the answer to the question above is a definite affirmative. At the heart of the problem is Derrickson’s and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman’s view of the Cenobites, which Derrickson describes as more philosophical but is more accurately categorized as theological. He shoe-horns Pinhead into the script and changes him yet again, making him into an agent of Hell whose seeming duty is to punish sinners. The Cenobites are here to inflict psychological torture on those who do not meet certain spiritual standards, and we must therefore assume their God is no longer Leviathan. Pinhead tells our protagonist that he is deserving of his punishment because “Your flesh is killing your spirit.” Thorne neglects his family and bangs hookers, and apparently choosing physical pleasure over maintaining personal relationships is cause for eternal damnation – harsh. Anyone else feeling preached at? The Cenobites have gone from being “explorers… in the further regions of experience” to enforcers of a God who deems sensual experience as sinful. This to me is not “philosophically ambitious” as Derrickson characterizes it, but rather conservatively backward-looking and not nearly as relevant to our modern culture as the first two films’ focus on desensitization in an era of immediate gratification. In 2002 Derrickson said of Inferno: “I wanted to make a movie about sin and damnation that ended with sin and damnation.” From the start, then, he missed the point of what made Hellraiser resonate with its modern audience, and makes it endure still.

The song which closes the movie clued me in to the director’s vision, whether intentionally or not. Called “From Eden,” it ends with the refrain, “We’re livin’ in the best of all possible worlds.” Derrickson studied theology, and I have to believe that this song was not an arbitrary selection. These lines evoke the famous argument of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s theodicy, which states, essentially, that because God is good and omnipotent and created all things, that all of creation must be good – the best of all possibilities, in fact – and that evil and suffering are therefore part of God’s plan and could not be removed or altered without diminishing His creation. You pull on one evil thread, the whole fabric unravels. This idea of course rests on too many assumptions and was lampooned by critics, sometimes inaccurately but not unjustifiably, and most famously by Voltaire in his still entertaining novella Candide, published in 1759. At the risk of looking too deeply into this connection, it sums up perfectly Pinhead’s place in the new Hellraiser mythos. He is no longer separate from or rebelling against the divine, as in previous films, but is now an agent of that divine plan, doling out righteous retribution to those who would hold the worldly over the spiritual. The problem of evil (Pinhead), in Derrickson’s Christianized account, thanks to Leibniz, is now solved.

This is all too moralizing for me, and that’s the similar reaction I had to another Derrickson film, 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. What he attempts to pass as thought-provoking comes off as preachy and tired to me. There are some things that Inferno does right. The Cenobites are creepy and many of the effects are well done, with few exceptions. Some scenes, such as those involving blood soaking through bedsheets, provide memorably set-pieces.

However, the first half of the film feels like it was filmed about a decade earlier and the main character, who is supposed to be fairly unlikable, is difficult to connect with or care about. The final twenty minutes, despite being visually interesting, did not move the plot along and quickly began to try my patience, especially after the umpteenth time I heard the little girl’s disembodied voice yell, “Help me!” It all culminates in a non-surprise and a major plot hole – without giving spoilers, ask yourself after watching it, given Pinhead’s revelation, whose finger was in the candle before he found the Lament Configuration? Lastly, there is the problem with the puzzle box itself. Without the theme of desire used so effectively in past films, one has to wonder what the point of the Lament Configuration is. If there is no longer the possibility for pleasure or power, why would anyone try to solve it if it’s only purpose is to summon demons to drag you to Hell? Ultimately, I find Derrickson a stronger director than screenwriter, and in this debate I have to side with Barker. Derrickson indeed changed the rules, and diminished the already weakened franchise in the process.

Grade: D