Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Trilogy Blu-ray Review: A Puzzle Box Worth Solving

Bringing back 1980s horror is all the rage lately. It’s hard to swing a dead cat without hitting reboots of Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, throwbacks like Hatchet, or parodies like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Cabin in the Woods. It’s about time Clive Barker’s longest-running and most recognizable franchise enjoyed some of the limelight again. However, where the Nightmare and Friday box sets include every film in their respective franchises, no matter how critically revered or panned they were, The Scarlet Box includes only the first three Hellraiser flicks, which are generally considered the strongest of the franchise, as I understand it. Hellraiser IV was the last in the series to receive a theatrical release, but even it didn’t make the cut. Maybe there will be another set later.

Something we should get out of the way early on is that I received only pre-production Blu-ray discs for this review, not the full retail box set, and cannot speak to the quality or design of the packaging or any promised pack-in extras. You’ll have to look to other reviews for that commentary, unfortunately. I’ll be discussing my thoughts on the films and the on-disc extras and what I gleaned from the experience. A full listing of the content is included at the end of this review.

As a relative newcomer to the franchise (I have no idea how I missed seeing all but part of the first one over the years), it was actually really helpful to have the included commentaries, making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, story analyses, trailers, and interviews with cast and crew on the disc right alongside each movie. There are literally hours of extra content here lending insight into how the movies were made and how they changed from one to the next, including a change of production studio and the controversial decisions to take the franchise in an entirely new direction after part two.

Part of that transition affected how the films were identified — originally the puzzle box and whoever opened it were the titular “hellraisers” and brought on only their own fate and suffering. In short, those few bold enough to open the box got what they deserved. Later on, the lead Cenobite character Pinhead (Doug Bradley) developed his own agenda to open the gates of hell and bring dark forces and eternal suffering to the innocents of Earth for all time. This recharacterization of Pinhead from mere executor into a more stereotypical bad guy also made him into the face of the franchise and helped it fall in line with how other horror franchises propagated sequels, as well as endlessly resurrecting their antagonists.

This change, however, was miles away from the more imaginative, cerebral, and disgusting origins of the franchise that centered around an extramarital affair, and abandoned house, and Julia (Clare Higgins) bringing her uncouth lover Frank (Sean Chapman) back from the dead in Hellraiser (1987). It was a slower-paced story with some layers to it, complexity abandoned later in the franchise for cheaper thrills. It stood out against the simpler slasher flicks of the era, in part because, rather than seeing doe-eyed teenagers hacked to bits, it was about adult relationships where almost everyone is inherently terrible and racing headlong toward their own demise, and the “child” among them, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), ending up as the protagonist and survivor for a change. This film is where Clive Barker largely ended his direct involvement with the movies. As they progressed, he distanced himself further and further from them until more recently, with a rumored draft for a series reboot making the rounds.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) saw Kirsty, the lone survivor of the original, challenging her nightmares and visions, using the puzzle box to open the gateway once more and venture into hell itself to try to save her father. More creative and diverse visuals combined with updated effects to tell a more compelling if somewhat less taut tale. Hellbound has some flashback scenes that maybe originally had a foggy effect to them but on the BD version looks more like noisy static, well beyond the preserved grainy look of the originals. It’s distracting, and I’m not sure why it was left this way in the final release. Some parts of the story still don’t make much sense like Channard’s eventual demise or really anything about the ending — it’s very tidy with minimal explanation. In any case, sometime after this film’s release, New World Pictures folded and the rights to the franchise were lost in legal limbo.

In 1992, Dimension (Miramax) acquired the rights and released Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Most of the original cast and crew had moved on at this point beyond some archival footage of Ashley Laurence, and Doug Bradley reprising his role as Pinhead. New Cenobite minions emerged to lay waste to the world, and the leather-clad S&M suffering exacted on the willing fell by the wayside to imposing suffering on the unwilling innocents of the world at large. Journalist and resident square Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) happens upon the puzzle box and some of its victims while trying to land the story that would make her a news anchor. She’s much less dynamic and much more the stereotypical horror heroine, rising to the occasion to help stop the evil-doers. The box set does feature an alternate unrated cut of this film — there are scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release but could apparently only be recovered from a pan-and-scan laserdisc version and are both lower quality and a different aspect ratio from the rest of the movie, meaning they stick out like a sore thumb. Completionists will be glad to have them, but for the rest of us, all you’re really missing is an extra set of boobs in one of the early club scenes and some insignificant dialogue later. There are a couple of notable typos in the subtitles, as well, particularly the name of a primary character that appeared in Hellraiser II.

Despite some missteps, it’s a pretty good set for fans of the earlier films, especially if you want to know what all went on behind the camera, as that’s where the bulk of the meat is here. I watched Hellraiser IV: Bloodline after the three in this set just to see how much more things continued to change. Pinhead in Space? Yeah, they chose wisely to stop where they did for this set.

On-Disc Content:

Disc 1

  • Hellraiser movie
  • Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser
  • Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellraiser
  • Soundtrack Hell
  • Hellraiser: Resurrection
  • Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser
  • Original EPK
  • Trailers
  • TV Spots
  • Image Gallery
  • Commentaries with Clive Barker and Ashley Laurence
  • Stereo and 5.1 audio
  • English Subtitles

Disc 2

  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II movie
  • Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellbound
  • Lost in the Labyrinth
  • Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellbound
  • On-Set Interviews
  • Commentaries with Tony Randel, Ashley Laurence, and Peter Atkins
  • Surgeon Scene
  • Behind the Scenes Footage
  • Trailers
  • TV Spots
  • Galleries
  • Stereo and 5.1 audio
  • English Subtitles

Disc 3

  • Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth movie
  • Alternate Unrated Version
  • The Story of Hellraiser III
  • Paula Marshall Interview
  • Anthony Hickox Interview
  • Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser III
  • Original EPK
  • FX Dailies
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Galleries
  • Commentaries with Peter Atkins (Theatrical) and Anthony Hickox and Doug Bradley (Unrated)
  • English Subtitles
  • No Audio Options

Disc 4

  • The Clive Barker Legacy
  • Clive Barker Short Films
  • Books of Blood & Beyond
  • Hellraiser: Evolutions
  • The Hellraiser Chronicles: A Question of Faith
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Mark Buckingham

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