4 out of 5
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
There’s some backhanded praise for Inferno which suggests it’s best view as ‘not a Hellraiser film,’ but I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. Granted, it was, indeed, backwards adapted into the franchise by first time feature-length director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman, but I only think that helped to strengthen its connections, as none of the HR flicks, to this point, had a very good grasp on Barker’s original concept, including the man’s own, classic movie. Assuming the wiki summary of the source book for Hellraiser is accurate, none of its concepts made the jump to film very well, with everyone a little murky on how to pitch the pain and pleasure juxtaposition properly, although HR1 certainly comes closest with its dreamlike flow and pantomime acting. Subsequent flicks with flirt with it a bit, but 2 was more focused on slaughter; 3 subbed out “pleasure” for power pursuits; and 4 ignored most of that in favor of adding some interesting, if clunky, mythology.
Inferno doesn’t directly bother with it either, but at the same time, it’s so much closer in spirit to my understanding of Barker’s ideas than any of the other films, in how it emphasizes that one’s own pursuits can blind them to the damning nature of those pursuits. It takes a little less direct BDSM action on that, instead opting for a very Silent Hills-y influence, in which our protagonist’s unknown personal demons take shape in the Cenobites of his hallucinations, but nonetheless, it’s a generally less literal (in some respects) read on the ideas, which ends up making them more interesting, and more effective, and creepier.
If only this wasn’t muddled by a frustratingly overwrought performance by Craig Sheffer in the lead, and an equally fuzzy narrative tone, which seems to be going for hardboiled – cliched voiceover narrations about the rain and all – but then also precedes the way the Saw sequels would make us spend time with characters we sort of want to die. Like, noir leads are maybe not good people, but we get invested in their plight. Here, Craig’s character is a cheating, drug-sniffing, POS, who over-emotes and says some really dumb things and it’s hard to empathize with his sudden concern over some kidnappings when the rest of his actions are so scummy. It’s to the credit of the film’s strengths – a consistent, immersive, sickly look to its lighting and sets; great creature design and convincing effects – despite its very low budget of 2 million; and kooky, creepy ideas from Derrickson and Boardman, creatively visualized – that the flick overcomes the flaws focusing around its lead, and as you get deeper into the mystery of “The Engineer” who is taking children and snipping off their fingers, and somehow subjecting cop Joseph Thorne (Sheffer) to Hellish dreams, the more intriguing are its connections to Hellraiser concepts and characters, leading up to an especially effective ending and explanation.