Exclusive: Director Gary J. Tunnicliffe discusses ‘Hellraiser: Judgement’

The Hellraiser franchise has had a rough go the last…well, really, since the second instalment back in 1988, I’d say. Following upon the commercially succesful introductions to the series, we’ve seen poor stories, Alan Smithee-directed movies, straight to VOD and DVD movies, and one film made for all intents and purposes strictly to keep the franchise in the hands of a studio. And yet, with all these stumbles, there’s always interest when a new Hellraiser movie is on the way. Credit that to the mind of Clive Barker, who created us the pain-loving Cenobites and their leader, Pinhead.

One could make the argument that Hellraiser: Judgement, out this Tuesday is simply more of the same – a low-budget film with a no-name cast, with Doug Bradley not even involved as the iconic Pinhead. One could make the argument, especially knowing Tunnicliffe was stuck working with a minuscule budget, except the thing is, if you’re open-minded, Hellraiser: Judgement is really a solid achievement.

In this film, director/writer Gary J. Tunnicliffe gives us the story of two cops on the trail of a serial killer using the Bible as his guidebook, bringing the duo face to face with the Hell Priest along with some new, horrific characters, including The Assessor and The Auditor. While the main story is fairly di rigueur serial killer stuff, the way it’s meshed with the Hellraiser mythos both old and new worked extremely well for me. The acting is fine (not great) from all the leads, while Paul T. Taylor does an exceptional job stepping into the role of Pinhead. His interpretation honours Doug Bradley’s version without aping him. Director Tunnicliffe himself plays The Auditor, and he’s compellingly horrific in the role.

Visually, the film shines when dealing with the creatures of hell – if you want blood, you’ve got it, and then some. The sexiness of early Hellraiser films is on display here, melded to with the horror. I can see fans of American Horror Story enjoying what’s on display.

Is Hellraiser: Judgement perfect? Hell, no. How could it be, with the limitations it faced? As I said, the acting is fine and watchable, but the work of the leads is less than compelling when compared to the monsters. There’s a moment where the lack of budget shines through for me, though overall I think Tunnicliffe does admirably well with what he had to work with.

A lot of fans and critics have been slamming the film, which led me to reach out and let Gary know how much I genuinely enjoyed Hellraiser: Judgment. In our email exchange, he was kind enough to agree to an interview, which you can read below and which hopefully gives you insight into the minor miracle he was able to pull off bringing Hellraiser: Judgement to life.

Congrats on making what I found to be a very strong Hellraiser film. To be frank, I loved it. It’s in many ways what I had hoped the book The Scarlet Gospels would have been. I know it’s been a long time coming. Can you explain how you wound up bringing Hellraiser: Judgement to life?

After Revelations (I was offered to write and direct it – but couldn’t direct due to commitments on Scream 4) I really thought my opportunity was gone. I assumed a reboot, remake or high budget sequel would be next and that would be me ‘out of the picture’. I was very dissapointed with the final product with Revelations, it’s not the film I would have made and definitely not the cast I would have used, and the script would have been filmed as it was written (there are quite a few changes)… but then one day the phone rang and its was Joel Soisson asking me if I’d be interested in another go at writing and directing a Hellraiser movie, this time with a little more time and a little more budget and (ever the optimistic fan) I jumped at the chance!

As a writer, what were you looking to achieve with Hellraiser: Judgement – I felt like you were able to take the world in a new direction. Was that always a plan on your part?

I basically wrote the film (within the limitations of the budget) that I wanted to see, the story I wanted to tell and that I thought logistically I could tell well, visually and literally. There was no point me writing an over the top script if I didn’t have the budget, I had to make the story intimate and come up with something different, something engaging but inexpensive – not necessarily the easiest brief. I chose to go in a slightly different direction and explore this new faction (the Stygian Inquisition). People had seen the Cenobites and it would retreading the same ground and expensive to do; I thought lets do something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. But I was selfish in the new concept and visual content – I wanted to see the Auditor and the Assessor etc.

You had to work with a limited budget – correct me if I’m wrong, please, but I think it was in the neighbourhood of $350,000. What are the biggest hurdles with a small budget. And alternately, what advantages or opportunities are presented, if any?

There is NO advantage to a budget of $350,000 trust me lol – basically I put my writer and director fee into the make up effects, Cenobite costumes and props etc. Mike Leahy (producer) worked miracles and wooed people into giving us things, great deals and working on the project for less money. Also the people of Oklahoma and film commission embraced us and really helped. People let us shoot on their properties. It was incredible and I am so grateful. The key to this, the key to hopefully making a film that denies its budget is the director being prepped. You have to squeeze everything you can out of every shooting minute; it means being extremely focused for every minute of every hour and knowing exactly what you will be doing one hour in the future, two hours in the future etc, etc.

In Hellraiser: Judgement, fans have a new Pinhead in Paul T. Taylor. I genuinely think he does a fine job stepping into the role, especially considering Doug Bradley’s long association with the character. What made Paul the right choice to be Pinhead in your film?

Paul fit the bill in a number of ways. I tend to make an assumption that if a casting director presents me with an actor, then I assume he can act and take direction. So initially when looking at people I was looking at physical attributes as a prosthetic make up artist. Strong jaw, cheek bones, eyes, etc, how he carries himself, height, weight, etc. The reason Stephen Smith Collins looked SO bad in Revelations wasn’t the technical skills of the prosthetic team – his face was simply NOT conducive to that character to that prosthetic. You couple that with an over the top performance not being reined in by the director and you get what you got. Once I’d seen Paul (and I thought he had this younger Peter Cushing look about him) I said, “lets read him for Pinhead.” He did a reading and he was great and you could feel his enthusiasm and excitement.

Look, let’s clarify something: I wanted Doug Bradley; it would have been the greatest joy for me to work with an actor I have admired and had the pleasure of working alongside for so many years. To me his IS Pinhead. But Doug was very uncompromising and hadn’t really ingratiated himself to Dimension over the past few years, so I had no choice but find someone new and Paul stepped up to plate and did a great job. He was everything you want in actor – he listens, he thinks and he’s there to work and be a team player.

Tell me how your developed some of the new characters – the Auditor and the Assessor are great additions to the mythos.

Honestly, they just sort of grew out of my (twisted) imagination and its been quite a while since I first thought of a guy using a typewriter that’s ink supply is the blood drawn from someone sitting in front of him. Once I had his character in my mind the idea for a process began and the characters that would facilitate that process started to emerge. So far you’ve only seen six (there are a lot more!), but obviously we didn’t have the money and truthfully, I just don’t think the studio had the stomach for the others (it was hard enough getting them to agree on these!). I like the idea that Hell is this deranged process, multitudes of levels that go deeper and deeper with different characters. To me the Cenobites and the Order of the Gash are one very specialized faction dealing with pain and pleasure and the experiences they offer those who seek out the box. The Auditor and the Stygian Inquisition are involved in the much more mundane processing of the guilty. Pinhead is simply called upon occasionally by them if there is a problem or issue.

There’s a theological component to the film that I found extremely compelling – the idea that the evil that men do is part of God’s plan. Where do you fall in the religious belief system, and did writing Judgement give you an opportunity to explore your own feelings? Or were you simply telling a story?

I have absolutely no religious beliefs whatsoever, utterly devoid of faith. But if you are writing a story that recognizes and incorporates Hell, then surely (within the world of the story) you HAVE to acknowledge there is Heaven, and just how that plays into this vision of Hell was what I thought was an interesting story concept. The main thrust of the idea came about when I discovered that many major manufacturers now create the “knock off/black market” versions of their own products, with the thinking that if there IS a profit to be made from a sub-standard version of the product we make, then we (using cheaper materials but the same manufacturing process) should be the ones to make it. It occurred to me then that IF there is a Heaven and all things were made by God, then he was responsible for the creation of Hell and perhaps (whilst he finds it a blight) has his uses for it.

As you well know, the Hellraiser franchise has had some serious ups and downs over the past thirty years. There’s been so many stops and starts, talks of remakes, etc. What in your mind has to happen for the franchise to get to a place where directors aren’t struggling with limited budgets and time constraints?

I suspect the studio would like the property to be a HUGE franchise and make millions of dollars. However, I don’t think the inherent, true properties of Hellraiser (the sexual, sado masachistic elements, the themes, etc.) lend themselves to a really commercial project like The Conjuring, Insidious or Halloween, etc. I think some people regard it as too weird and the studio would prefer to remove those elements to make it more commercially viable and THAT would alienate the fan base, so it’s kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. When I pitched Judgment and some of the bizarre elements, they were very taken aback and not sure about it all. I really was able to convince them since the budget was so low to take a risk and luckily Matthew Signer at Dimension went with it. I think the key would possibly be to take something like the SAW/Blumhouse production model – keep the budget capped at a reasonable amount but with enough to make a well crafted film with some recognizable actors – a $6-9 million dollar movie that accommodates the fans, the mythos, but also tries to push the franchise into new territory. That way it has a realistic shot at being an interesting, genre faithful quality product AND commercially viable.

I’m hopeful to see these characters and this world you’ve presented in Hellraiser: Judgement again. What sorts of ideas might we see, should you have the opportunity to do another Hellraiser?

I have absolutely no idea, I didn’t make this film with any thoughts of the future. I was sincerely just trying to make something that gave myself and others hope that a better film than some of the previous entries could be made, that there was life in the franchise that I love so much. But perhaps a story that saw a new Hell Priest instated, one who causes chaos and disruption, so the Auditor leaves a trail of information to allow our now human Pinhead to find his way back, find his mojo, reassemble his original order (Butterball, Chattere, etc.) and then take out the “pretender to the throne” in glorious, bloody fashion

Finally, how do you feel now that Hellraiser: Judgement is out there, and having judgement passed on it by the public?

Nervous! (lol) Everyday I get emails or get sent links to positive and negative reviews. It’s interesting to see some people review it online and miss out on major plot points or character progressions, etc. Movie site critics seem to be the most harsh, but some of their reviews do read like people who didn’t actually watch the film. On the flip side, it’s been amazing to see people go and watch it with an open mind and then post these “I thought it was going to be garbage but I really enjoyed it!” reviews. I’m also genuinely thrilled that people are embracing Paul as Pinhead and giving him a chance and credit for his performance… and I have to say it’s VERY nice to have people be so gracious about The Auditor. It’s not easy to write and direct, even less easy to write/direct and supervise the make up effects, so to write/direct/supervise, do make up effects AND play a part in the film is just arrogant, micro-managing in the extreme! But it looks like I might just have gotten away with it!

Thanks to Gary J Tunnicliffe for his time. Hellraiser: Judgement is out on VOD on Tuesday, February 13. 

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