“Hellraiser: Inferno” is a helluva lot better if you don’t think of it as a Hellraiser movie. I’m not sure it was meant to be honestly. You could have swapped the Hellraiser stuff with Candyman or Leprechaun or probably Alf without using very much whiteout, and the story itself is a total departure from every Hellraiser we’ve seen so far.
Craig Sheffer would be playing his second Clive Barker hero here (after Boone from “Nightbreed”) if this were a real Hellraiser movie from Clive Barker, but he’s not, so — anyway, he plays Joseph Thorne, a shady detective with a flair for solving puzzles and playing games. When not being an arsebiscuit to his partner through the unlikely medium of crosswords, he may be found snorting coke, stealing from crime scenes, and cheating on his truly lovely wife with hookers. He’s a flawed protagonist. He’s also the narrator, in another departure from the Hellraiser template, and as faithful as he is to his wife and daughter, probably should pencil him in as an unreliable narrator, too.
Thorne and his partner Tony are called to the super opulent scene of a homicide, and it turns out Thorne knew the victim in school and even bullied him. (Flawed protagonist!) It did not get better for the dead guy, and somewhere along the way, he got himself a hold of the Hellraiser box, and the box got a hold of him, like it do. The true detectives also find a child’s finger encased in a candle at the scene, a particularly chilling little touch that viscerally troubles absentee father Thorne.
Starting with a murder scene and an imperative to hunt down the killer before he finishes murdering the child he sawed that finger off’n, things deescalate quickly when Thorne takes the box along for sexytimes with a hooker. (Flawed protagonist!) He opens it, of course, but strangely, chains do not jet out and get themselves hooked into his face. No! Pinhead, sweetie, did you forget to turn your out-of-office on?
Instead of being shown such sights, he has a dream (or dream-like?) sequence where hotsy-totsy Cenobites try groping him to death, and then a chase, a jump scare, awake, and it’s daylight. Back to work and hunting down that darn killer. Okaaaaaay.
Back at the office, Thorne gets a call from his special friend from the night before, who sounds like she’s about 5 seconds from getting Cenobitified. He rushes back to the no-tell motel, discovers the hooker’s body, along with a child’s finger party favor, and fetches his partner Tony. Thorne then manipulates Tony into helping him clean the crime scene to cover up his involvement, all the while also planting evidence to make Tony a patsy should he get too much conscience and turn on Thorne. (Flawed protagonist!)
Kind of pissed off with each other, but even more desperate to stop the killings than before, Thorne and Tony find themselves on the trail of a mysterious mastermind, known only in breathless criminal whispers as “The Engineer.” I will tell you right now that trail is going to basically involve following chunks of people who know Thorne, along with the occasional child’s finger.
Also, let me tell you about the Engineer. The Engineer is part of the Hellraiser mythos that is never explicitly discussed onscreen up to this point, although he’s familiar to fans, especially fans of the novella. You know that flying snapping thing that chased Kirsty in the first one? That was the Engineer. In lore, he was maybe human once, maybe the one who first opened the gate to hell, but is definitely the one who makes the Cenobites all their fun action features. I suppose taking license with the mythos by making the Engineer the Big Bad is arguable, but to me, it’s one more thing that screams that this movie happened when someone played Hellraiser Mad Libs in someone’s psychological horror spec script.
Craig Sheffer actually does a pretty darn good job with this role. Thorne is a bastard all right, but Sheffer still makes empathy happen and convincingly veers from smarmy self-control to unhinged brutality to utterly beaten and back as the plot demands it. I kind of like that the movie dares to make him such a barely-mitigated dick.
The new Cenobites seem to be purposefully symbolic in their blinded, hypersexualized designs, which is a nice first for the series and unexpectedly deep. There’s also a sort of return of the Chatterer Cenobite, although this one is legless, and somehow that might be creepier.
And then the murders are fairly unflinching and “Criminal Minds” grade disturbing at times, realism that is risky, but interesting, following four movies of nothing but fantastical gore.
I don’t have all good things to say. Honestly, I’m kind of shocked I had that much good to say. For one thing, it drags, often and not in a fun RuPaul way. Also, once the movie starts to invest heavily into the psychological part of its alleged psychological horror, it peels away into a tedious and gory “Groundhog Day.” It tries for profound, but it just gets stuck in a b.s. death spiral, although, I guess, at least the b.s. is internally consistent. Consistent with itself, of course, not Hellraiser or anything from the mind of Clive Barker. Pinhead, the box, and especially the Engineer just do not need to be here, and it makes more sense for everybody if they’re not. But at least Doug Bradley got a paycheck out of it.
Watch the trailer to “Hellraiser: Inferno”