By the end of the millennium, Freddy was dead and Jason was in Hell. Technically, Pinhead was also dead having been destroyed in Hellraiser IV: Bloodline and the gates of Hell were closed forever. While other franchises were more than happy to retcon their continuity in order to continue the franchise, Hellraiser was at an advantage in that the previous movie was set in the future. Revert back to the modern day and hey presto, no need for explanations. Which probably suited Dimension Films perfectly by this point as their faith in the series had Hellraiser: Inferno going straight to home video. Clive Barker was barred from any involvement with writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (also attached to direct) who reworked an original script to serve as a Hellraiser movie. Doug Bradley was cast to return as Pinhead, with Craig Sheffer (who starred in Barker’s Nightbreed) in the main role.
Detective Joseph Thorn (Sheffer) is a corrupt cop more than happy to cheat on his wife and engage in recreational drug use. While investigating a murder he discovers the Lament Configuration. Recognising it as a puzzle box, he takes it home to solve and succeeds in opening it. He suffers macabre hallucinations and becomes convinced that the murder is linked to a killer known as the Engineer. Thorn soon engages in a cat and mouse hunt for the Engineer but it’s not clear who is the cat and who is the mouse as he finds nightmares spilling into his reality.
With the lowest budget of any of the sequels and the first to not get a cinematic release, you’d be forgiven for writing off Inferno as a forgettable entry to the series. Instead, it’s a surprisingly fresh idea that explores the world created by Barker while avoiding repeating old ground. The police procedural aspect is cliched yet works wonderfully in the context of the story. Derrickson delivers a noirish thriller albeit with the sun scorched cinematography of Nathan Hope. With much of the film taking place during the day it allows the director to bring the horror out of the shadows. The puzzle box has been opened but what has been summoned is not like we’ve seen before.
The movie is not without its bloodshed however Inferno works best as a psychological horror. The plot is a mystery and, like the puzzle box itself, one that becomes an obsession for Thorn, even if it is likely to lead to his demise. Pinhead’s involvement in the movie is scaled back which may be disappointing for some, it is worth noting that he only gets around 8 minutes of screen time in the first film. The main villain of Inferno is ever present, hidden in plain sight, a constant reminder that Thorn is in peril. It is still a delight to see Bradley reprise the role, a performance that has yet to tire.
The production looks cheap but it fits with the tropes on offer. James Remar and Nicholas Turturro lend some recognisable faces to the supporting cast as Thorn’s psychiatrist and partner while the first-time director showed promise and would go onto to bigger and better things including The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and Doctor Strange. Inferno doesn’t have the grandiose flair that earlier entries had but twenty years on, it remains the most underrated instalment in the Hellraiser series. With no ties to earlier films, it also works as a standalone story. A surprisingly fresh take on Barker’s world, Inferno teases and taunts us much like it does Thorn up until its satisfying and violent conclusion.