It's a Bad Time to be a Bad Cop
For fans of the HellraiserBorn from a short story by Clive Barker, this series introduced a new kind of killer to the burgeoning 1980s Slasher scene, a demon from Hell with the promise of pleasures for those who opened a puzle box. Those pleasures, specifically, were: gore, screams, gore, terror, and gore. series, Hellraiser: Bloodline was something of a divisive film. While good on its own (or, at least, better than the previous sequel, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth), it was marked with a budget that couldn't quite meet the ambitions of the script, Plagues with re-shoots, with enough changes made that the original director had his name removed from the film, it wasn't even a success at the Box Office. Plus, it was designed to act as the end of the series, a film that ended all the lingering storylines and marked the end of the evil puzzle box at the center of the series. Fans, naturally, didn't want to see their favorite demonic character shuffle off, stage right.
Because the fourth film was an ending to the franchise, though, that would seem to preclude doing any other films, at least any set in the same timeline. And yet, four years after the previous film (which came out four years after the third, which came out four years after Hellbound: Hellraiser II, so that was consistent), we ended up with a fifth movie in the franchise: Hellraiser: Inferno. If you were like me when this film came out you probably thought, "what they hell? They made another? After that ending?!" That's a reasonable comment to make, too, because, despite some interesting ideas that could have been explored in a better film (not this one, as this fifth movie really sucks), there's nothing about this story that screams, "hey, let's continue the franchise for anything other than as a cash grab."
Slotting more films into the timeline isn't difficult, mind you. Parts of the fourth film (the parts that matter), take place nearly 200 years into the future, so there's plenty of space in there to tell more stories. Stories that continue fleshing out the world, or that add more depth and mythology, would be welcome additions the grand Hellraiser pantheon. The issue with Hellraiser: Inferno (which, I will continue complaining about the fact this film really should be Inferno: Hellraiser V) is that bad acting, bad production values, and a confoundingly dumb story mar any attempts made and building out the mythology. I like the swings the script attempts to take but I hate everything else about this stupid little film.
Inferno focuses on Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer), a dirty cop who loves to indulge all of his various vices. He steals from crime scenes, he has sex with prostitutes despite being married to a woman who deeply loves him, he ignores is kid, and he does piles and piles of drugs. He's a walking train wreck, in point of fact, except that up until the opening of the film he actually seems to be able to keep it all together and run his life efficiently despite being the dirties cop on the force.
However, the first case we seem him handle is also that one that brings his whole world crashing down. While investigating the very violent and graphic murder of a man who, just by coincidence, Thorne used to know back in high school (no surprise, Thorne was the bully that abused the ever loving shit out of the guy), the detective finds a weird puzzle box at the scene. Drawn to it (in part because he has a professed love of puzzles), Thorne attempts to solve the puzzle one night, in a hotel bathroom after having a lot of drug-fueled sex with a prostitute. After the box opens, he has a very weird, sexual, and gory dream before waking up on the floor of the bathroom the next morning. He leaves, prostitute whole and in one piece, only to get a call about her soon after. Going back to the scene he finds her dead, cut up and strung up. He tells his partner, Detective Tony Nenonen (Nicholas Turturro), and forces the man to help him cover it up. Soon after, other people Thorne knows start turning up dead, and the visions of demons keep coming. He's unlocked something, and now Hell won't let him go.
The first issue this film has is that it tries to present it's case as a mystery. That would work if we didn't see Thorne get the Lament Configuration at the scene, didn't see him try to open it, didn't see him then get plunged into a world of pain and confusion as the demons fuck with him over the course of two days. If they film just stuck to being about Thorne versus the demons while he slowly went insane, maybe with a story about his redemption and attempting to free himself of this self-inflicted curse, that would be something. Muddying it by trying to make it be a mystery (which, note, really doesn't go anywhere) hurts the flow of the story.
It's obvious that the film wanted to build to a big twist -- namely, that Thorne has been in Hell this whole time, trapped in the games of the Cenobites, and everything he's experienced in the film is their twisted way of torturing him -- except you can guess that twist coming the second the puzzle box is introduced. Once Thorne touches it, you basically can tell where the film is going every step of the way. There's no real twist, no mystery, just a rote sense of going through the motions once you've figured out what's going on.
Not helping matters is the fact that Sheffer is just woefully underwhelming in the role of Thorne. This is a man that should be able to glide through his life on charisma, papering over all the bad things he does such that people never question him at all. You need the right lead for that role and Sheffer isn't it. He'd a charisma void, wandering through much of the film with a dumbfounded look on his face. He's like the Chris Pratt of early 2000s direct-to-video horror; he tries, but it all just comes out so bland.
With that said, the film does try to add something to the mythology of the series. In the past we've seen the Cenobite show up and immediately rip apart people, that being their idea of "exquisite delights" to show to sinners. If you aren't innocent you'll get tortured, however briefly, by the Cenobites before you die (that is unless you catch the attention of Pinhead and, for no discernible reason, get to be one of his Cenobite followers, tortured forever). There's seemingly no rhyme or reason to who becomes a Cenobite and who doesn't, but it's pretty clear that most get dealt with quickly, blooded and torn apart before the demons move on.
However, what this film shows is that once the demons get their hands on you they'll play you with both physical and psychological torture. They let the Hell you realize become one of your own devising, the perfect torture to send you mad down the spiral of your own mind. I like that idea, as well as the thought that everything Thorne experiences is in his mind from the very second he touches the box. This was his fault, and everything from that moment forward happens in Hell, torturing him over and over again.
There's just a couple of small issues with that, though. First, Thorne gets the box at a crime scene, and the film is pretty clear it's the first time he's seen the device. And yet, the person that dies is someone connected to him, as is every other body that falls after. It's all connected to him, his fault, him doing the killing under the control of the Cenobites... but how can that be for the first kill if he hadn't touched the box yet? The timeline doesn't work quite right. I do like the idea that the box was placed there, just for him, and there was no coincidence at all... but it still leaves a bit of a plot hole here about how this death ties in to the rest of the story, which we're explicitly told it does even if it doesn't work right for the timeline.
Then there's the problem that, but focusing on the bad guy and showing us (to use a term from Lucifer) his "hell loop", we realize that no matter what he does he's never escaping the hell of his own devising. There can't be any room for growth (and the film doesn't even try for it), making him a rather empty protagonist. What's the point of witnessing Thorne's story if there's no way for him to learn from it? Is it supposed to be a cautionary tale for the audience? Well, in that case, I'll make sure if I'm every a cop I don't steal, do drugs, ignore my wife and kid, and have sex with a prostitute. And, if I do happen to do all those things, I'll at least be smart enough not to touch an evil puzzle box.
Except, scratch that, I already knew not to go anywhere near puzzle boxes. And that's the big, overriding problem: this film, for all it's interesting ideas about how Hell works (a subject not really explored in the series properly up until now), the film lacks a solid story to tell in and around it. A better protagonist, with a better journey, is required to really sell the ideas of the film. Anyone other than boring old Thorne played by Craig Sheffer. Maybe the film series could support further entries (even if, as with Inferno, they had to go direct-to-video), but if that's the case, this fifth film fails to sell the idea. It's a bad film made and sold simply to keep using the Hellraiser name.