Hellraiser changed horror in 1987, introducing fans to a new type of darkness that fused religion, sex, and violence. Leaping from the pages of the novella, The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker barely hesitated when he brought his new brand of horror to live action.
The franchise has amassed 11 movies, easily rivaling giants of the horror genre, like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Those rival series have endured their fair share of criticism for diminishing returns, but that’s nothing compared to the reputation for quality control Hellraiser has earned.
The franchise nods to slasher movies, but it occupies a different space. As a concept, it’s difficult to pin it down like you’d hope its iconic Lead Cenobite could. The movies have constantly tried to break down the puzzling horror, using students, journalists, and detectives as protagonists to cast new light on its corner of Hell.
The menacing cenobites have remained a constant, although their leader has been a problem. It’s easier for masked killers to change their actors. Doug Bradley defined the iconic Lead Cenobite Pinhead for nearly two decades and was brutally honest with his loyal fanbase when he left the franchise amid Dimension Films’ continuing attempts to retain the rights. The dips in quality and budget on the way masked some brilliant ideas, and the movie series has never explored the concept like the extended media, including Barker’s novels and comics.
Still, the release of 2022’s Hellraiser shows plenty of life and death left in the franchise. Here’s our ranking of every Hellraiser feature—a list some might call pain and pleasure indivisible.
11. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
The first movie developed as Hellraiser pitch in over a decade, Revelations is let down by its budget and compromise. A twisty-but-soft retelling of the first installment, the franchise almost gets away with going found footage. If only more of the film could have been captured on the hoof in Mexico, as the script and domestic soap are a shadow of the original it tries hard to emulate.
The less said about Stephen Smith Collins’ stocky and strangely hissing Pinhead, the better.
10. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)
The final movie of the original sequence is an improvement on Revelations as it draws back to the bureaucracy of Hell, the fight between angels and demons, and Pinhead’s over-inflated view of himself.
Unfortunately, the movie’s human dimension and police procedural—built around a Commandment-obsessed serial killer called the Preceptor—is more interesting than the hell-bound moments that see Pinhead reclining in a brick room. If the attempt was to draw in fans in the wake of successful shows like Supernatural, it failed again on script and budget.
9. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
There’s an interesting story hidden in this meta-spin on the franchise, something that comes to every horror juggernaut (see: Halloween: Resurrection). There are twists and a brilliant turn from a coolly evil Lance Henriksen. There’s also a sense he’s stealing all the good lines from Pinhead, who is reduced to a shouty cameo in the last of Doug Bradley’s appearances. Part of a back-to-back deal filming in Romania, it was the end of Hellraiser being bolted onto spec scripts and other adaptations, and for some time, it looked like the end of the franchise.
8. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
It’s more pain than pleasure to see this fourth installment land so low in rankings. This is where it all went wrong, fittingly, because of ambition. Pinhead enjoys his most expanded role, grappling with other demons while working through agents in a long struggle against the LeMarchand family—descendants of the toymaker who first created the puzzle-box gateway to Hell.
Pinhead looks far better than the foundation-clad ghoul encased in a pillar in the movie that preceded it, but the ideas bursting from the script are undone by production troubles that led the director to remove his name from the final film.
7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Slap bang in the spec script era of the franchise, Deader has the potential to be brilliant as it explores the physical space between Earth and Hell after a string of movies that had languished in mental torment.
This time, it’s feisty investigative Journalist Amy Klein drawn into the infernal world. It’s great to have a female protagonist again, although the second of Rick Bota’s Hellraiser movies relies on stitched-together dreamlike sketches rather than a compelling narrative. Pinhead is reduced to cameos once again, but the involvement of SFX supremo Stan Winston means some spectacular, bloody, undead makeup effects.
6. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Scott Derrickson’s directorial debut is an apparent attempt to steady Pinhead’s stygian boat. While he musters up some impressively distorted cenobites, it confirmed how the franchise would decline. It’s a trip into a personal hell for the movie’s unlikeable lead.
Having seen cameos from pretty useless police officers throughout the series—cenobites can’t clear everything up—this is a dive into a police procedural that attempts to create a mystery for viewers as well as the unraveling protagonist.
5. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
Bringing back Kirsty Cotton is a great touch, and using her as a shadowy presence after she disappears in a car crash is a brave choice. Hellseeker reinforces the pact and bargain Kirsty made in the first movie, but her estranged husband bears the brunt of the horror.
Hellseeker is a good demonstration of how Hellraiser has the power to blur the Hell on Earth and the cenobite’s extra-dimensional home, but it also tries to nod to other popular franchises, like The Matrix.
4. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
The trilogy closer really does bring Hell to Earth like never before. Away from domestic trauma and Pinhead’s human side, the Hell Priest massacres New York. Amid the onslaught, tackled this time by news reporter Joey Summerskill, there are signs the concept is straining. Even Pinhead acknowledges the quality of his replacement, and gimmicky cenobites aren’t what they were.
Hell on Earth is saved by the strong plot threads from previous movies, as Christopher Young’s sumptuously horrific franchise score gives way to heavy metal. The franchise had quickly burned through its sensuality, but the tragic plight of victims like Terri showed huge potential remained.
3. Hellraiser (2022)
Drawing an intelligent line under a franchise with an unfortunate reputation for poor movies, Hulu’s adaption is a hugely anticipated reboot that took Clive Barker’s creations back to their roots in The Hellbound Heart, crucially with the writer’s approval. Production quality, casting, and scope are a step up, with tricks, turns, and nods to the best of the movies that preceded it. The revised cenobites and the way David Bruckner captures them is glorious.
The reboot can’t nudge ahead of Barker’s brilliantly simple original because, despite its disturbingly brilliant cenobites and creation moment, nothing recaptures the original’s shocking resurrection scene.
2. Hellraiser (1987)
The original movie is a domestic horror mostly set within the walls of a home in North London. Its trans-Atlantic blend was ahead of its time, and Clive Barker’s directorial debut was a revelation in the slasher-dominated 1980s. Christopher Young scored an infernal symphony to back a film that didn’t just unleash the cenobites but changed what horror movies could do.
It fuses mortal horrors, like family and addiction, with religion, spirituality, and an extra-dimensional and ambiguous threat. Not to forget its repulsively brilliant and balletic makeup and effects work. You can see what you want in Hellraiser. As the Lead Cenobite said, “Angels to some, demons to others.”
1. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
The sheer joy of this expansion of the Hellraiser myth pushes it to the top of today’s list. It’s an excellent pickup from the conclusion of the first movie and where we first meet a franchise staple, a high-rolling, cowardly cenobite obsessive, this time the brilliantly arrogant Dr. Channard. Even better, after his disconcerting conversion, his repulsive ultimate cenobite, the Doctor, is so evil that he can even destroy Pinhead.
Hellbound is an hour and a half of quotable, iconic horror joy.