“What’s your pleasure?” Hellraiser, novelist Clive Barker’s gamey, viscous breakthrough into horror cinema, arrived at a time when neither pleasure nor pain had much to do with the genre formula. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises had primarily turned the state of the art into a joyless, profitable processional Night of the Lemming Dead. Worse, the fascination of collectively experienced dread and the muscularity of D.W. Griffith-inherited plot tensions were, thanks to both self-knowing predictability and Freddy Krueger’s spiritual rebirth as a homicidal Chatty Cathy, being held up as objects of ridicule. Neither series is without its respective charms: I still harbor great fondness for Jason Takes Manhattan’s laughable attempt to get streetwise and gritty, as well as The Dream Master’s kinetic, afternoon-sunlit set pieces. But the arrival of Barker’s humorless Cenobites had to have hit audiences-on-autopilot like a splash of cold blood to the face, at least conceptually.
Yes, the iconography of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his snapping, lashing hooks has settled comfortably into the realm of S&M. And yes, the Hellraiser series has devolved every bit as drastically as the Nightmare or Friday franchises. Say what you will about Freddy’s much ballyhooed battle against Jason; at least the two never stooped to taking their butchery bullshit into outer space or—Neo help us—over the World Wide Web, as Pinhead has done in what’s become a direct-to-video glut. In its original incarnation, Barker’s adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart touched upon something genuinely unsettling: not just the pleasure of pain, but also the pain of sex.
In the film, firecrotch Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) is caught in a loveless marriage to Larry (Andrew Robinson), a chronic loud talker who faints at the sight of blood. Hanging over their domestic arrangement is Larry’s brother Frank, haunting Julia figuratively (the two began a torrid affair when he arrived on their wedding day) and literally. It turns out Frank delved into the dark arts while Julia and Larry were away, opening a Satanic puzzle box and being torn asunder by the guardians of Hell, or a matte-shot approximation thereof. A few drops of Larry’s blood reanimate the pieces of Frank’s body underneath the bedroom floorboards, and soon his slimy remains inform Julia that she must bring him more blood so he can be fully regenerated and the two can be reunited in crypto-incestuous passion.
Barker’s vision cribs equally from the mythos of vampires and zombies, but Hellraiser’s overriding ridiculousness (and nagging budgetary shortcomings) can’t disguise the fact that the movie is at least unwittingly a product of the AIDS crisis. Scenes of sexual intercourse are always marked by the presence of blood, often gelatinous, recycled, or otherwise ill-gotten. Stagnant pools of blood are constantly inhabited by teeming insects. And ultimately, Julia’s mission to gather plasma for her undead lover, man by man (all picked up in bars), results in a libidinous, walking terminal disease. It’s the voluptuous residues of Hellraiser, not a low-voiced dude with a porcupine head, that spark the fear of mortality even among those who can’t relate to Pinhead’s masochistic command that pleasure be pain and pain be pleasure.
Barker’s uneasy blend of thrusting hedonism and abject nihilism never did touch the Hellraiser series with the same brutal ripeness as it did his urban nightmare Candyman. But at least he got in one properly sloshy sequel before the overproduced Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth massacred an entire nightclub without even faintly suggesting the sting of death. Hellbound: Hellraiser II sort of ignores the fact that a flying Skelator snatched the Lament Configuration puzzle box and flew away in order to continue the first film’s story without skipping a beat. Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is still understandably distraught over the fact that her dead uncle Frank sucked the flesh right off the bones of her father Larry. Meanwhile, her stepmother Julia is following in Frank’s footsteps: escaping Hell, sucking blood, and regenerating her old form. (Hellbound’s twice warmed-over depiction of resurrection was sensibly released on Christmas weekend in 1988.)
Again, Pinhead is mostly peripheral. If the original film’s true heavy was the rapacious Frank, the sequel’s horrors belong to Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who runs an insane asylum where helpless people are locked up in what looks suspiciously like Freddy Krueger’s boiler room. That’s if they’re lucky; if they’re not, they get their brains scrambled by a three-pronged drill. And that’s even before Channard gets retrofitted into a Cenobite. It’s probably a stretch to surmise that, just as the first film’s subtext dealt with health fears, the sequel mines its dread from the horror of malpractice—as when Channard memorably “prescribes” a straight-razor to the patient who thinks he’s got maggots crawling all over his torso. Nevertheless, the sequel’s cure proves infinitely bloodier than the original’s disease, and its over-the-top depictions of brimstone and flesh are so loopy and unmoored, you’d swear the place where nobody dared to go suddenly became Xanadu.
The first two discs in Anchor Bay's fanboy-targeted Lament Configuration Box Set have been previously released as 20th-anniversary editions of Hellraiser and Hellbound. They look good, though most of the matte shots that probably looked fine on VHS are laughable enough on DVD, to say nothing of their appearance in Blu-ray, of which a copy of the original film is included as a third disc. Which basically means anyone who buys the box will get one version of Hellraiser they will likely never use. The visual presentation is not markedly improved by 1080 progressively scanned lines of information, but you will be physically assaulted by Christopher Young's overachieving musical score in Dolby TrueHD 5.1.
Again, none of the bonus features included in the box are new to anyone who might have snapped up the 20th-anniversary reissues (i.e. anyone who would probably have the slightest interest in snatching up and displaying this oversized puzzle box on their bookshelf). Both feature audio commentary tracks with some combination of Clive Barker, Tony Randel, Peter Atkins, and Ashley Laurence. They're solid listens, both conveying juicy production anecdotes as well as revealing the intelligence and good humor of their participants. At one point, Barker reveals that he never liked the nickname Pinhead and that one of the crew members originally suggested the title of the movie should be What Women Will Do for a Good Fuck. There are also tons of featurettes, galleries, new interviews, and promotional materials, all recycled from the previous DVD editions. But most importantly, there's a "coming soon" promo for Matthew McConaughey's Surfer, Dude. What fresh hell is this?
Overproduced and guaranteed to disappoint all but those who have never bought a Hellraiser DVD to date, the Lament Configuration Box Set will likely only tear your wallet apart.