The first three films from the popular HELLRAISER franchise, grouped together uncut and in HD, in one highly collectable, extras-laden boxset from Arrow Films Video...

The first film, directed by author Clive Barker and adapted for the screen by him from his own novella, "The Hellbound Heart", emerged in 1987 - a time when the horror genre mainly consisted of weak sequels, cheap straight-to-video rip-offs and apologetic, censor-appeasing comedy-hybrids. It was, to the say the least, a breath of fresh air for hardcore horror fans.

It tells the story of American Larry (Andy Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who move to England where he's just inherited his brother Frank's house. Also along for the ride is Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's teenage daughter from a previous marriage.

As the adults start to unpack and busy themselves renovating the place, Kirsty gets friendly with a local boy. But all is not well - Julia is hiding the fact that she previously had an affair with Frank (Sean Chapman), and the house has specific memories for her as a result.

In fact, Frank was a sexual deviant who craved carnal desires to an extent that he became obsessed with solving a puzzle box said to proffer unlimited pleasures to anyone who could open it. As a result he got what he wanted - but paid for it by being condemned to Hell.

It's a fate that is reversed when Larry accidentally cuts himself while working on the house, his blood seeping through the floorboards and onto Frank's skinless cadaver. The rejuvenated corpse (played by Oliver White) soon stirs old feelings in Julia, who is only too happy to pick up a hammer and seduce fresh victims for Frank to feed on, enabling him to gradually grow into human form again.

There's just one problem: Hell wants Frank's soul back, and has sent the monstrous Cenobites - led by iconic Pinhead (Doug Bradley) - to reclaim it.

Can Kirsty save the day...?

The story is muddied, messy. Some of the performances - nay, almost ALL of the performances - teeter on being cringe-inducingly bad. Production values alternate between impressively realising some of Barker's twisted, sadomasochistic concepts (the "Jesus Wept" episode; the Cenobites) and being surprisingly poor (a winged beast later into proceedings). But HELLRAISER gets by on a combination of its relentless creative streak, go-for-broke grisliness and energetic direction from Barker.

People stripped of skin, one character being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, another being literally torn apart via hooks embodied deep in their flesh ... HELLRAISER offered some hardcore psychotronic thrills for its time. And all of it was achieved by way of practical FX work by Bob Keen's talented crew. Some of it has undeniably aged, but the good far outweighs the bad.

Yep, HELLRAISER was - and remains - a delightfully gory prospect. More than that though, it proved that the British horror film could still be relevant: bloody, steeped in Gothic atmosphere, fantastic, witty, sexy and cerebral.

Inevitably, a sequel followed one year later.

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER 2 kicks off where its predecessor finished. Kirsty awakes in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, where her story is initially dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. When doctor Phillip (Kenneth Cranham) is called to hear her claims, he recognises something of value in her story and leaves her with trainee medic Kyle (William Hope) while he rushes off to Frank's house to seek a bloodied mattress which, according to Kirsty, may resurrect a character from the first film.

We soon discover, via Kyle's unsubtle sleuthing, that Phillip is obsessed with the occult. In particular, he lusts after a mysterious puzzle box said to unlock the portals to a universe of untold sadomasochistic pleasures. Yes, we know the one...

To this end, it transpires that Phillip has been keeping a number of patients captive in a secret mental ward - all of whom appear to have been privy to the box's delights/terrors previously. When Phillip gets his hand on the aforementioned mattress, he sets about acquiring the blood required to resurrect its last owner - and nurtures them back into human form, in the hope that they will show him the pleasures that Hell promises in return.

All of this is witness by Kyle, who now has sufficient belief in Kirsty's story to help her.

Of course, the sticking point for all concerned is once again the Cenobites. By re-animated the corpse of a soul condemned to Hell, Phillip has incurred their wrath and brought them back into our world. Not only are they looking to reclaim that soul, however, they're quick to realise that they now have a chance of taking Kirsty back with them - they may finally claim "the one that got away" ...

So, this time the question is less whether Kirsty can save the day, but more whether she can save her own skin. With the help of silent puzzle-solving patient Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), that may just be possible.

Gorier, more ambitious in terms of grandiose FX set-pieces and production design: HELLBOUND is certainly bigger than its predecessor. But is it better? No. It's not a bad film, and it certainly entertains. But where the first film suffered from a muddy screenplay, this one becomes near-incomprehensible. There was a time where heavy censorship could be blamed for this, but even uncut - as it is here - HELLBOUND makes little sense.

In fairness, the first 50 minutes are quite gripping. Stylish too, offering visual nods to THE INVISIBLE MAN and EYES WITHOUT A FACE along the way while delivering one standout scene of perverse gore that outdoes even Barker's blackened imagination (leeches and a razor blade, that's all I'm saying ...). Directed by Tony Randel - who helped edited the first movie - HELLBOUND overcomes its late 80s fashions and smoky aesthetics during its first two thirds ... but then the Cenobites turn up, and everything degenerates into a rather plotless episodic run of unconvincing set-pieces from there.

The effects work is amazing in some scenes, and crummy in others (a clumsy throat-slashing isn't as nasty as it should've been; sub-Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsters blight the final 20 minutes or so). Perhaps attempting to flesh out the Leviathan - the giant beast which controls the Cenobites' universe - was a stroke of ambition too far.

Still, despite being more surreal than terrifying - it's not at all scary, in fact - HELLBOUND continues to entertain. It does also afford Bradley the chance to act briefly sans his Pinhead make-up, when he's transformed momentarily back into his former human self during a key plot point...

HELLRAISER 3: HELL ON EARTH came in 1992. It was directed by Anthony Hickox, whose most notable other effort was, er, WAXWORK.

Stylishly shot and edited, benefitting from solid production values and warm colour schemes, HELL ON EARTH is definitely the most visually attractive of these three films.

The inane plot relocates the action to New York. Playboy JP (Kevin Bernhardt) is the owner of a popular nightclub called The Boiler Room. This is presumably an excuse for the producers to toss in a few commercial songs from the likes of House of Lords, KMFDM and Motorhead. Armored Saint even have a cameo appearance, playing on the club's stage...

Anyway, JP likes to take girls back to his penthouse suite and get it on rough-style. He's also a sucker for outlandish pieces of art - so is quick to snap up a disturbing, ugly-looking sculpture known as "The Pillar of Souls". Unbeknownst to him - for a short while, at least - this is actually a holding cell for Pinhead and the omnipresent puzzle box. Once one of JP's sexual conquests accidentally backs into the pillar, Pinhead's taste for blood is sated and he springs back into life. All he needs now to rejuvenate himself and his regular Cenobite cronies is a regular supply of fresh blood.

This time around, it's down to news reporter Joey (Terry Farrell) and eyewitness Terri (Paula Marshall) to stop the madness. Luckily they've found a videotape retrieved from Phillip's hospital in which Kirsty clues them in on what the Cenobites are and what their purpose is...

Gorehounds won't feel short-changed (even when watching the theatrical cut, which is presented as the main feature on disc three of this set), especially during a show-stopping sequence off mass slaughter in the nightclub in which the obnoxious DJ meets with an amusingly fitting fate.

It's also good to report that the concept of Pinhead's dual personality - his persona as an uncompromising demon entity, and the conflicted human being he once was, are both explored in more detail in a most welcome sub-plot.

But by-and-large HELL ON EARTH adheres to the unofficial rule of sequels: the law of diminishing returns. Laurence is missed, and her replacement - Farrell - never really connects with her audience. Bernhardt is unlikeable, while the fodder ushered to his penthouse suite to feed Pinhead's needs are completely devoid of character. It's consequently difficult to see this as much more than a visually arresting, violent folly: it's like a feature-length music video with added tits and gore.

Each film is presented without cuts an in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1 across the board, enhanced for 16x9 televisions). Benefitting from new restorations in 1080p HD, each film is presented as a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file and the payback is plain to see.

HELLRAISER, for example, has never looked so crisp or bright, its red hues bolder than ever before during the righteously gory set-piece scenes. Flesh tones are accurate, detail in close-up scenes is vivid, and blacks remain sturdily capable throughout. Natural grain is evident, while a sense of filmic depth far outreaches the capability of old DVD presentations.

HELLBOUND has always looked a little rough on home video, I believe. It still has a softer, grainier texture to it - but looks the best it ever has here. As with its predecessor, the only downside to such clarity is that some of the FX work really shows its age now.

HELL ON EARTH looks better still, with impressively lively colours and deep blacks. A few optical scenes aside (digital skylines etc), this is sharp as a pin and struck from a nicely clean print (as are all three films), there's little to grumble about.

Likewise, the first two films are graced with 2.0 and 5.1 Master HD English audio mixes which are robust and problem-free throughout. The third movie has 2.0 audio only, but this is equally satisfying. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.

Each film gets its own blu-ray disc, which open with animated main menu pages. From there, each film has a pop-up scene selection menu allowing access to it via 12 chapters.

You want bonus features? Take a deep breath then, and here goes...

The first disc kicks off with two audio commentaries: one from Barker, and a second where he's joined by Laurence. Fans will have heard these before and already know that the latter is the better of the two, as the writer-director can be a little dry and monotonous on his own. Still, there's plenty of interesting titbits to be gleamed across the length of these two chat tracks.

"Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser" is a superbly edited, attractive and highly absorbing new 89-minute documentary on the making of the film. Containing new interviews with just about everyone involved on both sides of the camera (though Barker and Laurence are both conspicuous by only featuring via archive clips), this really does take its viewer through every stage of the film's production - right through to its release and reception. It looks good, is equipped with well-placed clips throughout and holds the attention well - even though someone fucked up when recording Bradley's comments, as you really need to tinker with your volume button when he speaks.

Our friends at Nucleus Films provide a couple of worthwhile new featurettes too: "Soundtrack Hell" speaks to Stephen Thrower about the unused Coil soundtrack he contributed to, and offers tantalising glimpses of what might've been (18 minutes); "Being Frank" finds Chapman very willing to discuss the joys and hardships of filming under such effects-intense circumstances (26 minutes).

A 6-minute archive "Electronic Press Kit" offers more onscreen musing from Barker. But, as this was clearly designed to promote the film, it really doesn't proffer a great deal of insight.

Other previously available featurettes include "Under the Skin", an informal 12-minute chat with the affable Bradley, who reveals how far back his relationship with Barker goes, and the 24-minute Making Of documentary "Hellraiser: Resurrection".

We get three original trailers, four TV spots and four behind-the-scenes stills galleries too.

Two drafts of the screenplay - the first and the final ones - are also included as BD-Rom downloadable content.

Now, on to disc two...

Not to be outdone, this also contains two audio commentary tracks - Randel and writer Peter Atkins appear on both; Laurence also features on the second.

"Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound, Hellraiser 2" is - you guessed it - another whopping new retrospective documentary. Like the one on the first disc, it's presented in HD and narrated by Oliver Smith. It's also extremely polished in presentation and editing. Much of the same bunch of faces are on hand here, giving another blow-by-blow account of what sounds to have been an at-times troubled production. Still, that makes for some interesting stories accompanied by plenty of attention-grabbing clips along the way. Running for an epic 2 hours in length, this is remarkably flab-free entertainment.

Chapman and Bradley return to give their specific thoughts on their time spent working on the sequel (their featurettes each run for 11 minutes); "Lost in the Labyrinth" is another archive documentary - 17 minutes - that should be familiar to fans.

More archive interviews come in the form of a 3-minute on-set chat with visiting advisor Barker, and 4 minutes with the agreeable cast.

The usual promo paraphernalia is correct and present too: two trailers, two TV spots, three galleries (including storyboards which clue us in on alternative endings), 2 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.

We also get a 5-minute pillar-boxed clip which will be like gold to mega-fans: the infamous, reportedly lost "surgeon" scene. This is based in the hospital and I won't describe it too much because it's clear that it would've featured near the end of the film, but it's highly interesting to see here - even if the odd second here and there has been replaced by "scene missing" cards, due to the FX for those moments never having been completed. Audio is present, but clearly music was never added to this footage.

Disc three contains a very substantial extra in the form of the option to watch a composite print which constitutes the full, unrated version of the film. Okay, the additional footage is blown-up and stretched in comparison to the bulk of the film, but just to have it here is pretty special. It consists of some extra boobies, a couple of seconds of minor gore and - crucially - some fleshing out of previously vague plot points. The extra footage amounts to roughly 3-and-a-half minutes of material.

Two audio commentaries are worthy additions. An old one from writer Peter Atkins entertains, with Michael Felsher moderating, while he's also on hand to provide a new track specific to the longer unrated cut. He's joined with the affable Bradley on this one.

"The Story of Hellraiser 3" is a solid 32-minute documentary, while archive interviews with Marshall (15 minutes), Hickox (14 minutes) and Bradley (14 minutes) do their best to make the plot sound more intellectual than it is.

A 5-minute "Electronic Press Kit" gives Barker another opportunity to promote the film, while a generous helping of daily FX test footage - 25 minutes' worth - is intriguing despite being presented without sound.

A trailer and two promotional galleries round off things on disc three.

Also provided in this set but unavailable for review purposes are a fourth disc containing HD renditions of Barker's early arthouse films SALOME and THE FORBIDDEN (worth having if you absolutely need to see a young version of the director prancing around with a stiffy), a Barker documentary and two more HELLRAISER featurettes; a 200-page booklet; a fold-out poster; exclusive art cards; and a further 20-page booklet containing a selection of conceptual art.

Word is, Arrow will release the first three discs in this set individually in time ... So it's the goodies in this last paragraph that collectors will be investing in.

It probably doesn't need saying but this set (reportedly out-of-print at pre-order stage) is quite a staggering accomplishment and a real treat for HELLRAISER fans.

If you're lucky, you may find a copy on the shelves of your nearest FOPP or HMV. Otherwise, you can wait and see what Santa brings - or pray that that those rumours of forthcoming individual releases are true...

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Arrow Video
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review