Aspiring television news reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) seems to have hit on the story of a lifetime when she sees a man brought into the emergency room close to death, and embedded with hooked chains over his entire body. Instead she is dragged into a crisis in hell as the Cenobite leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – separated from his human host – struggles to emerge on Earth and reign over a nightmare future of torture and death.
Produced after a four year break and the collapse of original distributor New World Pictures, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth takes the series into a new and ill-advised direction. With American mini-studio Dimension Films taking the reins and moving production to the USA, the focus shifts to make Pinhead a horror icon comparable to Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and the franchise a more commercially friendly and mainstream proposition. Or, at least, that seemed to be the intention. In reality Hell on Earth largely abandons the elements that made the first two films so oddly compelling. The sadomasochist elements are toned down, as is the alluring combination of sex and gore. All that is really left is the gore.
The tonal shift is a confusing one, because there are still lingering elements that suggest a film more in line with its predecessors. The events of Hellbound saw the Cenobite leader’s demonic identity split from his human core (both played by Bradley), and to prevent him from running rampant all over the city he must be reunited with that core. It leads to what feel like a much more authentic series of scenes in which that core – World War I Captain Elliott Spencer – communicates with Joey via dreams. Pinhead himself, and he is referred to on-screen as Pinhead for the first time here, falls into a far more typical slasher movie mold. He even transforms several victims into novelty-based new Cenobites, none of which have any of the menace or style of the originals. In fact, they’re mostly an active embarrassment.
To his credit Doug Bradley is very watchable as this more humorous and diabolical version of the character, but it still feels like a betrayal of the earlier movies. Terry Farrell does her valiant best with a bad screenplay. Other actors in the cast simply are not particularly good. Technically it feels cheap as well. The sets really feel like sets rather than environments, and there’s an uncomfortable amount of dialogue that has been dubbed or re-looped in post-production. There is also a very strong sense that the film has been structurally edited to pieces. An extended cut was released to home video, but it feels throughout as if all of the back story and texture has been excised in the name and faster and cheaper thrills.
Only entertaining in fits and starts, Hell on Earth is a terrible disappointment. It marks the moment that the franchise stopped being a story and started being a commercial piece of intellectual property – one that the Weinstein Company has jealously defended ever since, making numerous additional low-budget sequels purely to hold onto the rights. Hopefully, with the company declaring bankruptcy and being bought out, the rights might finally escape to a producer or company who cares about the story and the characters and not just the imagery of Pinhead.