Hellraiser: Scarlet Endgames – The recent deaths of Pinhead reviewed

The Scarlet Gospels Hellraiser Revelations

On the day that the glorious Hellraiser Scarlet Box is released, Jokerside has a chance to redress the balance knocked off by its obtusely balanced evaluation of the saga a few Halloweens ago with reviews of old Pinhead’s two last stands. So far.

While we wait in eternity for the Hellraiser big screen reboot, a glimpse at Pinhead’s last film outing in Dimension’s strained Hellraiser: Revelations. But first the true end of the Hell Priest in Clive Barker’s definitive novel The Scarlet Gospels.

*Advised gore and horror reading awaits – this is Hellraiser. But only light spoilers to be found here – best read in a light circle of hell.*

WHEN JOKERSIDE SET OUT THE VERY GENEROUS HELLPIE THAT SPLIT THE FIRST EIGHT HELLRAISER FILMS INTO THEMATIC SEGMENTS, THINGS WERE DIFFERENT. Dimension Films were resolutely clinging on to the Hellraiser rights as the idea of a franchise reboot floundered in its own hell. Now, just two years on those final five films have somehow found even further to fall while the first trilogy has risen to a shining new Scarlet boxset thanks to creator Clive Barker’s stronger grasp on his creation. This year, he finally realised his mission for the High Priest of the Cenobites to Cenobite it with the release of The Scarlet Gospels, while the film reboot remains in focus, but this time with Barker himself back in charge.

Yes, it’s a (pin) heady year in Hellraiser history, and one that reeks of a turning point. So let’s take a look at Pinhead’s last stands on page and screen so far…

The Scarlet Gospels (Clive Barker, 2015)

Some of it, potentially much of it, is still in Hell…

The Scarlet Gospels found its way out of Hell some years after it was first announced and some of it, potentially much of it, is still there. It was always and still is headlined as the definitive death of the Lead Cenobite, Hell Priest and film icon: Pinhead. Way back in 2010 Clive Barker finally announced that 243,000 words of the rumoured novel were looking for a publisher. There followed three years of furious editing, pruning it down to less than half that word count and apparently excising much of its demonic, angelic and terrestrial mythicism.

Anchored to the mortal realm at the outset, The Scarlet Gospels then sets out to explore vast swathes of Hell and broaden the concepts first laid down in the novella that became the first Hellraiser film The Hellbound Heart.  Its 368 pages are easy to breeze through, sucking up classic Barker horror across Earth and Lucifer’s realm through blackened teeth. And it’s a romp of sorts, the majority tracking a twisted group of Dantean questers entering Pandemonium itself on a rescue mission, at their lead Barker’s recurring protagonist, New York occult PI Harry D’Amour.

The return of Barker’s most famous creations may suggest that D’Amour and Pinhead’s antagonism, switching as it does from the domain of one to the other, is central to the novel. That’s true to a point, certainly they’re never on the same side, but those hoping for a much mooted confrontation will be disappointed. And perhaps not have expectations in line with the pair’s respective franchises. There are mighty meetings and impossible scrapes ahead, but early events make it clear that the chances of D’Amour bringing down an entity as powerful as Pinhead is extremely remote. And while both are transformed by the end of the tale, it’s not to that end. No, The Scarlet Gospel’s are a meta-textual account of Pinheads final revolt in hell, and that’s something he understandably wants recorded. The confrontation arises when he settles on D’Amour as the ideal person to record them for him. All the players subsequently fall into place around Pinhead’s grand, if occasionally obscure plan.

Cuts and Balances

Perhaps these segments were always fated to be lost to apocrypha

The pruning has undoubtedly left the protagonists with a smaller canvas to clamber across, Pinhead with a slimmer motivation, and reduced much of the tale to a chase across Hell. Excised sections were rumoured to explore the significant heavenly side of the equation – in the finished product that is reduced to blasphemy, some foul-mouthed angels and an act of supreme anti-creation. While a shame, that restriction at least brings the Gospels further in line with the scope of the Hellraiser we’ve seen on film, and that’s surely where much of the new audience will come from. Ultimately there was to be no interaction with Christ, or drawing out of the similarities between the Hell Priest’s Cenobite disfigurement and his own crown of thorns. Neither would there be substance added to the Hell Priest and D’Amour’s relationship. Harry’s supposed childhood encounter with Pinhead instead falling in his adulthood, at the end of a rather obscure and unexplained plot to grab the detective’s attention. 

Without these lost scrolls of omissions and the overall balance they would provide, the Gospels are not diminished, more transformed. For most of D’Amour’s life, Pinhead has been a mythical figure rather than a nemesis, but perhaps these segments were always fated to be lost to apocrypha – just like the half-whispered descriptions of Jesus travelling to his own Gehenna prior to his resurrection that the anti-pilgrims in The Scarlet Gospels mention.

Hell is again a world beyond the bondage of death – the Lemarchand Box opening dimensional portals to the place where those already massacred by the Gash relish their pain and pleasure indivisible even as they thank their lucky stars (in a relentlessly un-atheist world) that they weren’t actually killed.

Tale of the Two

A first chapter and a closing segment

No prior experience of the two main characters is required, though I doubt many readers will come to The Scarlet Gospels unfamiliar. This novel acts as both a first slightly rebooted chapter and closing segment to their entwined tales. Harry D’Amour remains similar to previous works, with nods here and to the Books of Blood short he first appeared in, loosely adapted by Barker into The Lord of Illusion in 1995. Although I saw that film subsequently, it forever locked the detective in the form of Scott Bakula and that’s an image and swagger easy to bring to this latest appearance. As extraordinary as his profession and accomplices may be, D’Amour remains the everyman window into Barker’s world, albeit in the mould of a modernised Sam Spade, and stretched out by vices as much as his history. One of the book’s Earth-bound highlights is D’Amour’s first Cenobite encounter in a magically warded house in New Orleans. Foreshadowing a later, larger Fall of the House of Usher moment, it also recalls the brilliant brick confines of The Hellbound Heart and the original Hellraiser.

Infernal headaches

It’s made perfectly clear how ill-thought the name Pinhead is

But much as the split between our word and Hell is in keeping with the logic of the Hellraiser films, the vision of that domain and the enhanced portrayal of Pinhead is trickier. First appearing in The Hellbound Heart, the lead Cenobite subsequently gathered much of his power outside prose and in the mixed worlds of film and comic, until that power grew so great he warranted his own gospel to finish him off. An inherent problem with the character is that much of the Hellraiser film series sauntered on without Barker’s involvement or good wishes. Doug Bradley continued to definitively portray him except for the final shambolic instalment (more on that later…), although his appearances were often slight and never as iconic as the opening films. And then, even at the beginning he cut a far a different figure to the asexual sense explorer that appeared briefly in the original novella. Barker had more power steering him in notable comic series over the years, which latterly have also drawn Harry Amour, alongside Kirsty Cotton from the franchise’s beginning, into their hellsphere. For all the fact that The Scarlet Gospels is a closing chapter for the Hell Priest, it’s also on many levels a reboot; regaining power of his creation was clearly a major motivation for this novel. As part of that reclaiming, the famous nickname is confronted from the start. He understandably has a distaste for ‘Pinhead’, which a few, often foolishly, use to taunt him. And it’s made perfectly clear how ill-thought the name is considering his head is dissected and riven by nail… Way past the bone.

That said, The Scarlet Gospel’s not constrained by paths previously laid. There is no Labyrinth, no Engineer. No limits are set by events in the Hellraiser comic series that can’t exist in this continuity, and the films are, as you might expect, irrelevant – although viewing the first three would be all anyone would recommend to start reading.

Opening gambits

Barker’s potent description hasn’t left him…

The opening establishes the famous Cenobite’s incredible power and insatiable quest for more, but while a whispered and infamous figure of myth among the terrestrially initiated, this powerful demonic force is merely a priest of the Order of the Gash, eyed suspiciously by his Abbot and at the whim of higher Hell-beings. He amasses power secretly and blasphemously and operates defiantly alone, bar one of his latter creations who acts at the hook to drag us into his world before being rather thrown away. Pinhead’s reasons are rather obscured, no doubt encouraged by the editing, although prove less important than his success at shaking up the Hell order. And come the close of the book that has most definitely happened.

Barker’s potent description hasn’t left him, in fact he’s clearly energised by the exercise of laying to rest his most iconic character. But Hell itself is a significant part of what the Gospels have to be measured against. And it’s not entirely there. The outstandingly good Hellraiser 2 put an astonishing Hell on screen, with its Labyrinth of corridors dwarfed by the imposing Leviathan. Clinical and ancient. That vision is now gone. Here we find a more Dantean version, sprawling out under the giant stone God covered it with. And as Barker explores it more, from the antediluvian brambles at its edge to the streets of Pandemonium (Pyratha) and out past the tribes of the descendants of first Fallen, yet more Lovecraftian and traditional horrors await. The dimensional element remains, although slightly lost amid some compelling Abrahamic twists – but while much of the book explores the alien nature of this domain and its inhabitants, the effect isn’t as captivating as could be hoped, beyond the odd startling description, mainly of architecture crafted by the Morning Star himself.

Final words

Barker’s original conception had a purity of the imagination…

And for all the simple chase plot that propels the main body of the book, the excisions leave injustice. Some of Pinhead’s acts are inexplicable, some of the plot propulsion arbitrary, particularly those that suddenly bring the motley crew to Hell in pursuit of the Cenobite. The crucial logic behind Pinhead’s fascination with D’Amour is inexplicable. Once in Hell, the level of cursed innuendo between the detective and his allies is distracting, but as usual with Barker it all helps to create a singular image. For all the heavily swear-laden and innuendo that keeps the band of unlikely and for the most part little explored protagonists sane when they find themselves in hell, there are affecting moments of visceral horror and repulsion. That irrepressible language, while it can’t be called unrealistic, has been an integral part of the Hellraiser franchise since the start. No doubt it helped revered critic Roger Ebert’s describe the original film as a “bankruptcy of imagination” but I can’t agree with the rest of his reading. Barker’s original conception had a purity of the imagination that so definitively cut through 1980s horror, it’s astonishing it hasn’t diluted three decades on. The Scarlet Gospels contains wholly vivid scenes, particularly concerning Harry’s growth into his role and pursuit of Pinhead through the bowls of Lucifer’s creation and what can only be described as the original infernal machine.

However, the slightly off-balance and imposed brevity of this story leads to comedy, some misplaced and some unintended. In particular, I found Pinhead’s rather floaty arrival to meet D’Amour for the last time as comic as it was haunting. Perhaps that’s exactly what the Dracula influence on Barker’s creation should draw out, but on route to the monster’s final moments that outstays its welcome.

Yes, Pinhead has a demise and it’s a suitably fitting conclusion in the world that Barker’s presented. And as we follow these characters to their end something unexpected happens: notable deaths passing with what might be called an unusual lack of dialogue. That’s something strange yet measured in this re-imbued act of Barker. Strongly trailed as the demise of Pinhead, The Scarlet Gospels turns out to be far more a reboot for Hell and for D’Amour himself. And as enjoyable and rollicking as the journey was, if only there was the chance of a director’s cut.

Now, if there was something that seems beyond saving, it’s Pinhead’s final bow on the big screen…

Hellraiser Revelations (dir: Víctor García, 2011)

“We are the light in the darkness, and paths to higher sensation. Guardians of ultimate experience. And now you will come with us.”

Now, there’s a line that trips off the tongue.

First the good news, Revelations as the first film since the flawed fourth entry, Hellraiser Bloodlines with a purpose written script. One where Pinhead and his monastic order, don’t have to be bolted into an unrelated horror script by their head extensions. But that’s hardly reason to have your own head inverted into a barbed wire party hat. The devastating news is that after eight films, the definitive and only Pinhead himself, Doug Bradley passed on the production; the motives behind it, from its feeble budget to unbelievable three week shooting schedule, put the nails in that head.  As he hinted at the time, as is clear from the films every ounce, Revelations is little other than a cynical but effective attempt by Dimension Films to retain the franchise film rights while their slowly rolling reboot of the original film worked itself out. Yes, a deal with the devil – where Hell finally gave way to the humble ashcan.

In the event, the film received a token single cinema screening for cast and crew before its straight to DVD release. And for all its highly amateurish qualities, it’s a credit to some of those that the film not only makes an attempt to return to the franchise’s roots, but makes a fair stab at extending them.

A return

Revelations sets itself a very steep path to climb

It’s no surprise that a specific script led us away from the morality tales of the latter films, and it’s great to return to the domestic horror that the first film excelled at. Where early dialogue-free scenes took us behind the wooden doors of the “old homestead”. The hooks and entrails, the turning posts and the mysterious figure placing the pieces of a man’s face, Frank Cotton’s face, together before closing the Lament Configuration and shutting the serene post-devastation off from the world.

Barker’s original film revelled in familial horror, from Kirsty’s slow walk to a house guarded by a line of Catholic emblems and statues destined to be rehomed, to the weak ignorance of Larry, the insatiable lust of Julia… The hidden secrets of the family drawn to a strange house. Without knowing what was to come the audience discovered Julia’s past infidelity with Frank while the means of Frank’s resuscitation unbearably loomed like a nail in the wall. Well, exactly like a nail in the wall – that cut the hand of the weak and squeamish brother.

There are no such pretensions in Revelations, where the audience already has an idea of what’s coming. There’s little time for build-up as the film speeds through found-footage flashbacks while two heartbroken families are brought around a dinner table some months after their respective sons ran away to Mexico and disappeared. It’s that kind of set-up that puts the emphasis on the script, and unfortunately with lines like “We talked about this” Revelations sets itself a very steep path to climb. A puzzle far more difficult than the Lamarchand box proves to be.

Rebirth

“Birth… is pain”

While Hellraiser saw the original house become a womb Frank reborn, here the horror is split between death and resurrection in Mexico and consequence and death in America. This is a defiantly American vision, and while that had been true of many Hellraiser films before, it’s missing the odd trans-Atlanticism that the first film’s mixed accents and London setting threw up. In particular, there’s something particularly affecting about Cenobites stalking the semi-detached terrace houses of suburbia in the old country as opposed to the yards we’ve become so familiar with in Haddonfield or Elm Street. The slashers that the original Hellraiser did so well to react against.

Back in 1987, the creak of the house’s wood and stone gave way to infernal engines when the dead were reborn.  In Revelations, similar events unfold with echoes of the original lines, but with indecent haste. With a scarcity of time and money director Víctor García had little choice. Hellraiser gloriously drew on the blood and reincarnation of gothic horror, leading to an inhuman birth that ended in the first scream of the new born. A heartbeat, the hell-bound one, that filled the walls until a Faustian pact of survival, lust and false love is signed. In Revelations, much of that is given up for the punchline.

“The Cenobites. It’s only a matter of time before they find out I’ve slipped them”

The old wound

It’s difficult to portray the hedonist who thinks he’s reached every limits

In replaying familiar themes, Revelations inherited some of the same weaknesses. Frank was a clearly poor link in the first film just as Nico, one of the wayward sons, is here. It’s difficult to portray the hedonist who thinks he’s reached every limits, and Revelations’ compromises make it even harder. It’s particularly acute that the opening scenes pile through the delinquents’ escape. Within three scenes they’ve passed from harmless road trip bantering to casual sex and murder. As those flashbacks unravel what happened some months previously, the structure doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The film may return the Cenobites to being explorers of sense, but they’re also far more smug surfers of suffering than they used to be, no matter Pinhead’s protestation that human memories have no place in their existence. How odd, even for a higher order Hell Priest – the Cenobites are correctly (and rather oddly) picked up here as a monastic order – to dismiss the memories of his rather brainwashed acolyte while not pondering his own lost existence.

Characters in Revelations change continually, which can only undermines the twists when they arrive. Twists that are very easy to read for anyone even casually familiar with Hellraiser lore.

Top of the tree

“Many, many times”

Talking of changed character, there’s one great pin in the room. A lot of the emphasis must fall on the Cenobite’s most famous member. Pinhead may get more to do in Revelations than he had for a while, but the insights into his downtime aren’t riveting. He spends a great deal of time pacing a bloody, infernal room. It takes a hollow paraphrasing of a familiar line, “You opened it. Summoned us. And we came,” to make that look ridiculous. You were about to open the box with ease, I was waiting. Not quite as effective… If anything, it’s a creeping dread on a par with the goblins in Labyrinth.

And of course, it’s disconcerting to watch such a different Pinhead. Unavoidably so. Doug Bradley would have certainly elevated this overly-garrulous foe. It was a tough act for Stephan Smith Collins to follow and he tries, but just doesn’t look or sound the part. When he speaks his Bane-like accent just doesn’t fit. It’s atrocious that he was put on the film branding, let alone given such torrid and expository lines at the end. Bradley put more unearthly, venomous threat into “maybe” than Smith Collins manages with, “This trinket of sensation you feel now will be a delight compared to the onslaught of agony that awaits at our hands.”

Exposition

A mini-pini-head

Yes, it’s not the first time Pinners and his crew turn up at the end to bloodily explain what’s happened and what eternity offers. But this time, they aren’t the twist. Instead, a build-up of violence, wounding and emotion, complete with the utterly redundant appearance of a vagrant at the house (quite possibly intended to be the same vagrant as the first film) months after handing the Lamarchand Box to Nico, ends in foolhardy and mistaken revenge. It’s an interesting move sure, dragging a little horror and misery from the jaws of a damp squib while also bringing back the idea that the Cenobites offer dimensional reconfiguring rather than undead existence (so death can actually halt their plans). But, while Pinhead’s chewing the script, it’s scuppered by the last-minute shoehorning of a ropey cliff-hanger.

Plus points

“The dark seed that grew within you now germinates within…”

From it all comes one strangely affecting addition to the filmic language of Hellraiser. The presentation of a lead character who unexpectedly proves far more attuned to the Cenobite life than the film’s other candidates. It’s a nice reversal in the family set-up, made all the more effective when we’ve previously seen him bow to Pinhead, so the Hell priest can nail squares of flesh to his head, creating a replica of an acolyte. A mini-pini-head. If this was Indiana Jones, the sequel rumour mill would be working overtime.

Slight at 75 minutes, nothing of Revelations stands up well to the might of the franchise’s early days. With Bradley passing it’s even sneered at by its predecessor Hellworld. And that huge, charismatic omission alongside the clearly cynical reason for its production will remain Revelation’s main legacy. It’s even messed up Jokerside’s Hellpie.

But as with The Scarlet Gospels, the end message may be a positive one of rebirth. While Dimension’s $300,000 investment in this ashcan film are highly questionable, the rights extension has seen a thawing in relations between Dimension Films owners, the Weinstein brothers and Clive Barker himself. And as it stands this Halloween, Barker is in line to script and produce an incoming reboot/prequel, or maybe, just maybe direct.

Take it Clive. It’s your gig. It always has been.

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