Demons! In! Space!
There's a common thread among Slasher films that are steadily going down the drain: when your series is really struggling, you have to take your character to the inner city, and then you gotta take them into space. This concept was really cemented with the Leprechaun franchise, which featured Leprechaun 4: In Space as well as both Leprechaun in the Hood and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood. You can also see it with the Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake. franchise, with Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason X. Hell, the Muppets even followed the pattern, which says a lot about the chaos and carnage those puppets could cause.
But before all those films made those narrative leaps we first went through it all with Hellraiser. The third film, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth took us from a small town in New England out to New York City, and then, with this follow up, we get our "in space" entry. But Hellraiser: Bloodlines is more than that. It's also a prequel for the franchise, an exploration of its mythology, and an explanation for how the demonic puzzle box was created. Did we need all of that? Maybe not, but that doesn't stop this film from at least being a more interesting, and more entertaining, sequel than the couple we had before.
Bloodline starts in 2127 with Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) on board the space station he designed, using an android to manipulate the Lemarchand Configuration. His actions are interrupted, though, when a team of space marines board the station and arrest him. Apparently his actions on board he space station weren't sanction and now he has to be taken back to Earth to stand for his crimes. But, before that, he first has to be interviewed by the team's psychologist, Rimmer (Christine Harnos), to see just why the doctor took over the station. What she gets is a story that's hard to believe.
Merchant is actually the descendant of Philippe Lemarchand (also Ramsay), the original designer of the puzzle box. As it's told, Lemarchand was an exceptionally skilled toymaker who built the configuration at the commission of Duc de L'Isle (Mickey Cottrell), a famed magician who, unbeknownst to the toymaker, was also a practitioner of the dark arts. He, along with his assistant Jacques (Adam Scott in his first film role), uses the puzzle box to summon a demon, Angelique (Valentina Vargas), so she can do their bidding. But once the toymaker realizes what the puzzle box can do he tries to steal it back. He fails in his attempt, but the dark magic creates a bond between Lemarchand, and his family, that stretches across time. Merchant wants to stop the demons, has already summoned the demons, and if the marines don't get out of his way, they'll all die up there, in space.
There are up sides and down sides to this film's story. A big downside is that, frankly, we didn't really need an explanation for how the puzzle box came into being. The previous films that made it (all the versions of it) out to be some kind of hell device, a magical gateway that transcended the planes of demons and men. It existed, has always existed, and will continue existing. That's far more interesting than, "some toymaker was duped into making it for some black mages." While that explanation is reasonable, it's also far less interesting than any head cannon the viewers had before that point.
Additionally, the film really had to work to force the Cenobites into the story. Angelique is our demonic presence and she exists in the three time periods the film explores (the past, the present following the events of the third film, and the far future), and frankly she's far more interesting than the Cenobites. She's got personality, charisma, and desire to be evil and cause carnage. Compare that to Pinhead who, despite his iconic look, just standard around and promises "such pleasures" while chains do his bidding. He's gross, and he causes a lot of blood, but Angelique is a Capital V villain. The difference is night and day.
I do think the film would be better if Pinhead were relegated to a cameo or two with the bulk of the story really focused on Angelique. Naturally the team couldn't do that because audiences wanted more Pinhead. Hell, the third film had to find a way to bring him back after he died in, and it really struggled to justify its own existence. But since the Cenobites were back, they had to be shoved in here and... well, they exist. They aren't interesting, and the film would be better off without them, but here they are.
With that said, this fourth film in the franchise does have its charms. While we didn't need an origin story for the puzzle box, it is interesting seeing an exploration of the creator of the box and his family down through the generations. I think there's something to the idea of the dark magic of the box leaving a mark on its creator such that a version of him pops up multiple times in history, always connected in some way to that damn box. He brought the box into existence and a version of him is the only one that can wipe it away. That's kind of neat, really.
I also appreciate the effort to add new ideas into the franchise. New time periods to explore do help add energy into the otherwise formulaic series. Sure, the future section on a space station does feel cheap, like the production budget couldn't really meet the vision of the creators (and at only $4 Mil, I'm sure that's the case). But after three movies all set in the present, and one movie feeling very 1990s in the process (that would be the third one), it was good to inject some new energy into the franchise.
I also credit the creators for thinking they could actually end the franchise. Bloodline, released back in 1996, has a very definitive end for the series, saying, "welp, now all the Cenobites are dead." Obviously that didn't stick as, just four years later, a fifth film, Hellraiser: Inferno, was released direct-to-video. It was set in the then-present and doesn't acknowledge Bloodline at all, really. That would make the future events of Bloodline something of a distant sequel to all the other films in the franchise, if the other films even care to acknowledge it at all. It is something of a black sheep, really.
Fans were less than kind to the film when it came out, hating the multiple time periods, the focus on a character other than Pinhead, the (seemingly) definitive ending. This wasn't the film they wanted at all. It bombed hard enough at the Box Office (only bringing in a series-low $9.4 Mil) that it ended up being the last theatrical release for the series (even the 2022 reboot went direct-to-HuluOriginally created as a joint streaming service between the major U.S. broadcast networks, Hulu has grown to be a solid alternative to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, even as it learns harder on its collection of shows from Fox and FX since Disney purchased a majority stake in the service.). And yet, time has been kind to the film, with people slowly realizing that the film had some good ideas. it tired to flesh out the world of Hellraiser, injecting new time periods, new demons, and greater mythology. It was willing to try, which is more than can be said for many cut-rate horror films.
This isn't a series full of big-budget winners. The Hellraiser series of films are all low-budget creepies. But among them Hellraiser: Bloodline tried to push storytelling boundaries. It might had failed at the time but it stands out now as the one film in the series really willing to take a chance.