Warning: Before reading what follows, it is only fair that I point out that the subject of this review, Arrow's HELLRAISER Scarlet Box set, is already sold out. It is of course quite conceivable that each film will be released separately at a future date, and so I've decided to press ahead and review the set anyway.
The 1980s was the time of the horror franchise: from the lunatic incoherence of the FRIDAY THE 13ths to the originality and creativity of some of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series; from the never-ending PUPPET MASTER series to the we-quickly-wished-they-would-end HALLOWEEN movies. I think it's something to be proud of that Britain was the country to come up with the only successful horror franchise to be inspired by sado-masochism, body modification, and sexual perversion. Oh yes, HELLRAISER, despite being funded with American money (and having some dodgy dubbing of bit parts to aid in the midlantic feel), was British through and through. And weren't we all proud when it and our very own Clive Barker took the festival circuit by storm?
Time has weathered HELLRAISER a little. The cracks show a little more now. It's still a great, timeless, story, and the opening half an hour is beautifully put together. It becomes in danger of losing its focus towards the end, but it still deserves its reputation as a classic, with iconic monsters, a superb central performance from Clare Higgins, and one of the best horror movie scores of all time. I still love HELLRAISER, and in 1988 I couldn't wait to see the sequel.
"So awful you'll have to watch it twice just to check you haven't made a mistake" said Shock Express of HELLRAISER II, just after I had gone to see it at the cinema for the second time to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake in thinking how awful it was.. There are many who like this sequel & I'm probably in the minority but the other comment I remember from Shock Express 'Like a really bad Italian rip-off of the original HELLRAISER' still rings true to me. The script makes little sense (actor Kenneth Cranham admitted he didn't have any idea what was going on) there's some duff acting in amidst Higgins and Cranham, and a curiously empty version of hell. Even Christopher Young’s score sounds like someone ripping off Christopher Young with an orchestra much larger than they should have been allowed to play with.
"Far better than it had any right to be" is my period quote for HELLRAISER III, a film I still have a lot of time for. Cheerfully 'franchise part 3 material' in nature, cleverly including backstory with the Kirsty Cotton tape, and literally raising hell on the streets of LA, Anthony Hickox's sequel is just ambitious enough to stay interesting without lurching into the wild incoherence of part II. And that final shot is still an absolute cracker.
Arrow's four disc set is packed with extras. Disc 1 (HELLRAISER) gives us two audio commentaries from Clive Barker, and then Barker with Ashley Laurence. You get ex-Coil member Stephen Thrower telling us about the band's discarded score, including some snippets and some pleasant reminscencing about his association with Clive Barker. Leviathan is an enormous, lengthy, detailed documentary about the making of the films that has been edited down into more easily digestible 90 minute chunks over the first two discs. Sean Chapman talks about his role in both movies, here and on disc 2, as does Doug Bradley. There's also a wealth of archive featurettes, trailers, the screenplay and an image gallery
Disc 2 (HELLRAISER II) gives us two commentaries (Tony Randel & Peter Atkins, then both with Ashley Laurence), more Leviathan, more Sean Chapman and Doug Bradley, more archive featurettes and interviews, plus the script, trailers and an image gallery. You also get (in 4:3 and taken from VHS one presumes) the missing 'surgeon scene' which is very much in the same tone as the rest of the film, so completists will no doubt be delighted at its inclusion.
Disc 3 gives you two versions of HELLRAISER III, just like the previous Anchor Bay DVD set did - the 'original theatrical' and an unrated version with all the cut material restored from a lesser quality pan and scanned master. There's a brand new commentary from writer Peter Atkins as well as a ported over commentary from Anthony Hickox & Doug Bradley. We also get ported over interviews, featurettes, more Doug Bradley, a new interview with Paula Marshall, and a thirty minute making of amongst others.
Disc 4 was not provided for review, but apparently offers Clive Barker's shorts SALOME & THE FORBIDDEN, which everyone has probably seen by now. There’s a documentary on Barker’s literary work, and most interestingly, a brand new documentary looking at some of the other films in the series, including director interviews.The entire set also comes with a 200-page hardback book with new writing on HELLRAISER, lots of stills and more. Very finally, a word on the transfers. Both HELLRAISER and HELLRAISER II have quite a lot of grain in the prints, especially in some of the darker scenes. In fact when compared with previous releases Anchor Bay’s DVDs actually look better. Turning down the resolution on HD TVs will help immensely with the ‘problem’. HELLRAISER III, on the other hand, just looks great.
Arrow Films released HELLRAISER: THE SCARLET BOX on 26th October 2015 in such a limited edition is has already sold out. Let's hope the individual films get releases soon.