Horror films can be fun, or scary, or sometimes both. Really great horror can either focus on one (The Shining) or aspire to both and succeed (Evil Dead II). Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth was trying for scary, to be sure, but the efforts at "fun" were so imbalanced that I remain unsure how much of it was intentional. And while I'd be lying if I said I didn't have any fun during Hellraiser III, the problem was that those moments were clustered largely toward the end, and failed to fully compensate for the earlier tedium.
Like the first movie, Hell on Earth introduces us to a single relatable character (Terry Farrell, Deep Space Nine's Dax, playing a TV reporter) and a broadly unpleasant supporting cast. Most unpleasant of all is the rich nightclub owner J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt, who my spidey-sense tells me has edited his own Wikipedia page). Monroe acquires a mystical pillar containing Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and one of those puzzle-boxes around which the first two movies revolved. Naturally, they don't stay in the pillar for long (though considerably longer than we viewers might expect/wish). The carnage that eventually ensues surpasses either of the previous films, and the justification for Pinhead's much more active lifestyle here seems to be that, at the end of Hellbound, Pinhead's essence was separated from that of his original human self, WWII officer Eliot Spencer. Thus, without the moderating influence of Spencer, Pinhead's much more Pinheady, I guess.
Where Hell on Earth excels is in giving Pinhead plenty of screen time. His angry roar is pretty chilling, and his confidence in being "unbound" in our world is palpable—even if the extent of his powers never comes into full focus. I also enjoyed hearing him say "BOY!" in a distinctly Tall Man-ish way.
But while some of the visual effects are undeniably impressive for 1992, the rest of the typical Hellraisery developments are either tedious or dopey. Hellbound retained some of the original film's tone despite expanding the monstrous repertoire, but in Hell on Earth, the new Cenobites are so corny that I actually predicted one of them before he appeared (specifically the DJ; I imagined him with CDs jutting out of his skull and gave him the name "Metalhead"). It's never a good sign when a silly riff you just made a couple minutes ago turns out to be prescient.
It's not just the goofier Cenobites; the overall feel of this film is that of a wacky spookhouse, with the truly nasty and unsettling stuff kept to a minimum. In its place is a broader style of scares, less concerned with verisimilitude or continuity. Both preceding films were pretty consistently scary or at least creepy; this one attains neither, and barely even manages "gross" with a couple of exceptions (like the awesomely unsettling Whatever-It-Is that tries to get Dax near the end). I understand why they felt the need to move beyond the first two films' narrative, but I don't think they did it in as skillful or sustainable a way as they could have. Despite the imaginative fuck-you ending (and I love those in horror movies, like the great one in Drag Me to Hell), I felt no optimism that future Hellraisers could improve upon the formula much at all. The track record just doesn't inspire confidence.
I doubt I'll see any more Hellraiser movies, seeing as I gave two stars to all of the first three. Hell on Earth resembles Hellbound only inasmuch as they both have strong ideas and some pretty good acting considering the genre, but are both significantly weighed down by moments of impenetrable plot confusion and that overall feeling of pointlessness that the best horror manages to avoid or transcend. And while the first one is definitely a better film, the second and third are a bit more fun to watch.
Star Score: 2 out of 5
And since this will likely be the last in my series of Hellraiser reviews, here's the best thing about any of the first three movies: the "Hellraiser" song from Hell on Earth's closing credits!