I gave up on the Hellraiser movies after the third installment. The fourth installment, Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, directed by Alan Smithee) was not promising and I never got back to it until now. For one thing, it was directed by "Alan Smithee," in reality special effects man Kevin Yagher. When you have a director making his first film, a director promoted from the special effects department, and he hides behind the DGA's pseudonym for directors who are disowning their work, that bodes ill. For another, it was one of the first horror franchise installments to take its characters into a science fictional setting, usually a sign of a property that has gone way past its sell-by date. And for all that, it was a Dimension project, and before there was Platinum Dunes, there was Dimension and its anti-Midas effect: everything they touched turned to shit and ashes. With all that in mind, I still had the idea in my head that it couldn't possibly be worse than Hellraiser III. Could it?
I suppose it's too much to ask that a fourth entry in any given series have any original ideas, so complaining that this film is a rehash of a lot of ideas that were floating around in the genre at the time may seem a little unreasonable, but there it is. The Hellraiser movies never were able to move beyond their central image of demonic bondage freaks speaking portentious pronouncements about the nature and horror of suffering. To its credit, this one recognizes the essential paucity of ideas. It looks elsewhere for its ideas. Mostly, it swipes them from Event Horizon.
This is mostly an origin story, and as such, it skips around in time a bit. It begins on a space station sometime in the 22nd century, where Dr. Paul Merchant has been interrupted in his unauthorized experiments. Explaining what he is doing takes the movie back to the 17th century, where his ancestor was a toymaker. His latest project is a curious puzzle box for a depraved magician. The magician uses the box to bind a demon into the flesh of a peasant girl. It ends badly for him. The toymaker, for his part realizes that if a device can open the gates of hell, then another device can close them. He designs such a thing, but fails to build it before he is snuffed out by the demon, Angelique. Then cut to the late 20th century, where another of Merchant's ancestors encounters Angelique, and realizes the burden of his bloodline. He's been subconsciously building his ancestor's device as a building. The puzzle box is still around, and it summons Pinhead, who immediately goes about creating new Cenobites to do his dirty work. And then the movie returns to the future, where Angelique and Pinhead stalk the space station where Merchant has nearly completed his family's work...
All told, it could be worse. Answering my own question: it's not worse than Hellraiser III, but it's not much better. But it's not anything new, either, and the "endgame," as the movie calls it, is so blatantly foreshadowed that there's not really any compelling reason to follow the narrative. Still, it has nice production values even if it doesn't have the resources to follow through on some of its more outre ambitions. I can't say I like the emphasis on the female demon, Angelique, which smacks a bit of fanboy pandering and has the effect of "unqueering" things a bit. It doesn't have particularly good performances, and Doug Bradley adds nothing to his portrayal of Pinhead while being saddled with lines like "What you think of as pain is a shadow. Pain has a face. Allow me to show it to you. Gentlemen, I... Am... Pain." Though perhaps I'm being ungrateful, because Pinhead also has this exchanges:
"Merchant: And what do you have faith in?
Pinhead: Nothing. I am SO exquisitely empty."
I'm not even sure what to do with a line like that. On the one hand, it's awesome, but on the other, it's so, so tragically unaware of the fact that it's the ultimate in self-damning criticism.