In the aftermath of her family’s destruction, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) wakes up in a psychiatric hospital. The ambivalent Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham) claims he wants to help Kirsty, but it soon becomes clear he has his eye on unlocking the demonic puzzle box and exploring the mysteries of hell for himself. Soon Kirsty’s dead step-mother Julia (Clare Higgins) returns to Earth, hungry for blood – and the Cenobites are not far behind her.
Movie sequels can generally go one of two ways. The majority revisit the beats and elements of the original, remix them a little, and give the audience exactly what they expect and want. A small proportion leap into entirely new directions: a strategy that could easy go either way in terms of popularity and effectiveness. The poster child for this second approach is most likely James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which took the ‘haunted house in space’ shtick of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and transformed it into one big Vietnam War metaphor. Tony Randel’s 1988 Hellraiser sequel Hellbound is certainly not an achievement on that level, but it does run a lot further down the rabbit hole than viewers might initially expect. What it lacks in raw impact it more than makes up for in expanding Clive Barker’s fictional universe. Hellraiser was brilliantly unsettling and scary. Hellbound, by contrast, is just straight-up weird.
The film begins as if it is simply going to duplicate the same beats as the original: Dr Channard takes possession of the bloodstained mattress where Julia died during the previous film, and by sacrificing one of his patients he manages to bring a skinless Julia back from hell. At first events are back in Hellraiser territory: Channard brings Julia victims, and she uses them to slowly return herself to a healthy appearance. They begin to share a sexual affair. Then Channard and Julia manipulate a non-verbal teenage patient named Tiffany into solving the puzzle box, a door to hell opens up and the film dives right in.
With the relocation of the characters from a fairly stereotypical psychiatric hospital to the labyrinthine corridors of the underworld, the film takes on a much more fantastical aspect. While it brings along a fairly harsh strain on the production budget, the imagination involved compensates wonderfully. The Cenobites return, with an even more prominent role for Doug Bradley’s iconic performance as lead Cenobite “Pinhead”. Dr Channard himself gains a horrifying transformation: it’s immediately very silly, but as the film progresses it becomes increasingly effective. Other elements in hell – particularly the ruling god Leviathan – are hugely atmospheric, and help overcome the film’s design and production shortfalls.
In the end Hellbound simply cannot quite match the visceral effect of its predecessor, but Tony Randel understands that such a match was simply never going to be possible. The film swings in its own direction, and even when it is ultimately only partly successful the imagination on show gives Hellbound a horrific charm of its own. I will take a faulty but creative sequel over a slick but soulless one any day.