“Hellbound: Hellraiser II” (1988): Big, Empty Sequel, Stripping Away Horror in Favor of Lore

Bigger is not always better; sometimes “bigger” simply indicates that there is more empty space. Such is the case with Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), the follow-up to the horror classic Hellraiser (1987). Whereas the first film only shows small glimpses of the outer reaches of the Cenobites’ hellish domain, the sequel takes the audience into the depths of that realm, and it is empty. Following almost directly after the events of the first film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II finds Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) trying to find her way into Hell to rescue her father. The Cenobites are not the only ones in her way; she also has to deal with her undead stepmother and an evil brain surgeon, among other things. Aside from a few noticeable exceptions, the special effects are sufficiently gruesome and are still effective. The filmmakers do get credit for going with an original story that logically follows from the first movie without rehashing it. The biggest issue is that the film is more boring than scary. With its lack of horror and cheap feel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a disappointing sequel that just does not work.

For those not familiar with the original film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II opens with an abridged version of the climax of Hellraiser, and it feels very much like one of those “Last week on….” prologues that used to be used on old television shows. After watching Kirsty escape from the clutches of the otherworldly “explorers in the further regions of experience” known as the Cenobites, she finds herself in a mental institution. This makes sense, as her father Larry (Andrew Robinson) and stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) have been found mutilated in the family home and Kirsty herself was found holding a strange puzzle box and ranting about creatures from another dimension. The only people who does listen to her are the eminent brain surgeon Dr. Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham) and his young assistant Dr. Kyle MacRae (William Hope). While Dr. MacRae’s interest in Kirsty is leaning toward the “romantic” side of things, Dr. Channard’s interest is decidedly more sinister. It turns out that Dr. Channard is a student of the occult and has been tracking down other rumors, legends, and artifacts (including other puzzle boxes) related to the Cenobites. Through rather unsavory means (involving the bloody sacrifice of patients in his care), Dr. Channard resurrects Julia to help him get access to the Cenobites and their domain of extreme pain/pleasure. Meanwhile, Kirsty has a vision of her father calling to her to rescue him from Hell. With both Dr. Channard and Kirsty wanting the gates to the Cenobites’ realm opened, the task falls to young Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), a mute mental patient with a penchant for puzzles, who may just be able to figure out the puzzle box/key. Once the gate is opened, will the characters find that which they seek: Kirsty – her father and Dr. Channard – the ultimate in experience and power?

As with the first film, the special effect in Hellbound: Hellraiser II hold up, with a few notable selections. The practical effects work here is gruesome and gory and quite good. One of the standout set-pieces is the resurrection of Skinless Julia (Deborah Joel) via a bloody mattress. The Skinless Julia makeup builds off of the Skinless Frank makeup from the first film, but adds a disturbing layer of sensuality. The Cenobites get more screentime here than Hellraiser, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the detail in their design. A new Cenobite, the Doctor, is introduced, and his design is even more over-the-top than the original ones, with him suspended from a giant umbilical cord attached to his head and with morphing, tentacle equipped appendages. Whereas the original Cenobites utilize practical makeup effects, the Doctor is combination of practical and stop-motion.  How successful the effects for the Doctor Cenobite are depends upon how one feels about stop-motion animation. Personally, I still love stop-motion work, as it adds an otherworldly feel to the motion of the character’s appendages. Less effect are the effects used to render the environment. For the extended Hell sequences, it looks like the filmmakers only used two or three fairly short corridors backed by rather unconvincing flats painted to look like long hallways. Wider shots of Hell utilize the classic technique of matte painting, but the paintings themselves are rather flat and unrealistic, breaking the illusion that Hell is a real place. The final effects shot of the pillar of torture rising from the bloody mattress is particularly disappointing, looking very cheap and hacked together. Perhaps this is because it is a last minute replacement for the original ending where Julia rises as the new Queen of Hell – a concept scrapped due to Pinhead’s unexpected fan popularity over Julia. Even so, there is no excuse for the shoddy effects work in this scene, which leaves the audience with a bad impression.

Many sequels are simple rehashes of the original film, but that is not the case with Hellbound: Hellraiser II. One of the strengths of the film is that it take the story in a direction that follows somewhat logically from the first movie while twisting and expanding on its themes and imagery. Instead of telling another tale of an obsessed individual who gets tricked by the Cenobites and tries to escape from Hell, the filmmakers present a story about individuals trying to sneak into Hell. The character of Kirsty has just witnessed something bizarre and supernatural; it only makes sense that the authorities would not believe her and treat her at a mental care facility. Her love of her father and willingness literally to go to Hell to save him fits with what the audience has learned of the character from the earlier movie. Dr. Channard’s arc, while admittedly bizarre, also flows logically from the setup earlier in the film. The audience is introduced to him in the operating room, and one gets a very clear picture of brilliant but arrogant and immoral individual. His desire for knowledge and power parallel Frank’s desire for extreme experiences shown in Hellraiser.

While Hellbound: Hellraiser II does have good special effects and manages to avoid the sequel trap of “more of the same”, it has one big flaw; it is not scary. One of the strengths of the Cenobites in the first film is that they are mysterious. There are hints of their backstory in their costumes, anatomy, and body modifications, but it is up to the audience to flesh out the details. Not knowing just who or what they are is a big part of what makes them so terrifying. In Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the filmmakers strip this mystery from them by showing the audience the Cenobites in their original, human forms. The movie even goes so far as to show the actual transformation / genesis of Pinhead (Doug Bradley), which just completely robs him of his mystique. Now, I am sure there are those who find this aspect of the film to be the most fascinating, building on the mythology of the first movie. I, on the other hand, feel that it may indeed deepen the lore of the Hellraiser universe, but it does so at the expense of the horror aspects of the franchise. The journey to the Cenobites’ domain also emphasize worldbuilding over horror. In Hellraiser, there are only glimpse of the outer reaches of Hell, but Hellbound: Hellraiser II, ventures deep within the infernal labyrinth. Unfortunately, Hell turns out to be a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, and nothing much else. Perhaps this is because everyone has their own private Hell, or perhaps it is because of budgetary constraints. Either way, the end result is a yawn-inducing sequence that fails to elicit any chills. Even Leviathan, the mighty god of Hell, does not do much beside spin in the sky. The character with the greatest potential for scares, the Doctor Cenobite, spews so many one-liners and puns that it robs him of any terror potential; he is far more frightening as his human form, Dr. Channard, in the earlier portions of the film.

Even without comparing it to its predecessor,  Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a bit of a disappointment. It does have some rather spectacular effects work in some scenes, but these are offset by low-rent effects in others. At least the story is somewhat original and not a retelling of the first film. Unfortunately, the end result just is not scary, with some of the most terrifying elements from the first film stripped of their mystery and horror in the name of worldbuilding. Viewers wanting to know more about the world of Hellraiser may disagree and be more than willing to trade the horror for increased lore. Then again, as Frank and Dr. Channard know, sometimes knowledge and experience come at too high a price.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5) Available from Arrow Video in the US as Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box

Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.