Director Gary J Tunnicliffe chats to us about his journey through the Hellraiser franchise – right to the director’s chair.
“I think Lionsgate were genuinely surprised. I think they thought they were going to release it and no one was going to see this movie. There was a big turnout for it. I know it sold out on Amazon, I think in the first week. Then, of course, there wasn’t an English release, which was really strange.”
I’m talking to director Gary J. Tunnicliffe about Hellraiser: Judgment ahead of its belated UK debut earlier this year. It’s a film that was shot way back in 2015, before its studio – Dimension – became embroiled in the scandal surrounding the arrest and conviction of Harvey Weinstein. The film has ended up with Lionsgate, who released it in the US in 2018.
“It feels like I’ve been living with this movie so long,” he tells us from his home in Bucharest. He’s originally from somewhere a little closer to Film Stories’ UK Midlands HQ, though. “I come from a place near to Lichfield called Burntwood,” he explains, before detailing his way of paying tribute to his British roots.
“I did a movie previously where I had a Mayor Lichfield. I went to Chase Terrace High School, so there’s actually a Chase Terrace Academy in this. My best friend in school, or one of them, was a kid called Craig Egerton, so the detective is called Egerton.”
So how does someone get from Burntwood to the director’s chair of a Hellraiser movie? Well, Tunnicliffe’s involvement dates back nearly three decades. A budding horror make-up enthusiast at the time, he instantly connected with the original.
“I was dying to see Hellraiser. That came out in ’87. I sat in the theatre, I looked at the screen and said who did this? That’s what I want to do more than anything else, get to Los Angeles. Clive Barker was my hero. Then I found out the company that did the make-up effects on that was in England, run by a great guy called Bob Keen. I basically worked my portfolio up to a situation where they hired me, eventually. They had just finished Hellraiser II and within a year we started on Hellraiser III.
“My job was making the boxes. During the production I ended up helping out so much that they kind of saw me more as a workshop supervisor, so I got that. Then, when I moved to LA, [on] Hellraiser IV [Bloodline] I was the make-up effects designer. Hellraiser V (Inferno) I was the make-up effects supervisor. At that point, I became kind of like the upholder of the lore, if you like.”
He’d go on to expand his role on the sixth [Hellseeker] and seventh [Deader] films, serving as second unit director. He explains that on some of the films he’d had to ensure the studios worked with original Pinhead actor Doug Bradley, though Bradley would eventually depart the franchise after the eighth movie, Hellworld, with some bad blood spilling out into the public eye.
With a couple of directing credits outside the franchise under his belt, Tunnicliffe had become the natural candidate to assume to director’s chair. Especially after his own short film.
“After we did Hellraiser: Hellworld, which I thoroughly loathe, I said ‘that’s it… That’ll be the end of it, no one’ll ever ask me to direct a Hellraiser movie’.
‘So I did a Hellraiser short called No More Souls, which if you look online you can see. I play an old-age Pinhead in it. Dimension saw that and were like ‘that’s great! Can we put that on the DVD?’”
Later, when the series relaunched with Hellraiser: Revelations, Tunnicliffe was into effects work on Scream 4 and so unable to direct (he did write the screenplay, though).
“A couple of years later, I got a call saying, it isn’t the film that you should be offered – it was only $400,000 at the time – but if you still want a bite of the cherry… I was like, look, if you tell me it’s $10 and a camcorder and it’s Hellraiser, I’ll do it because I’m a sucker. I love Hellraiser, I would love to try and put my stamp on it.”
While working with the sort of budget that would make many indie filmmakers’ wince (eventually settling at just $350,000), he still had to navigate the cantankerous studio system.
“I’d written the script and sent it in and I had like 12 executives on a call sitting around a table. Then it was two executives. Then those two had gone and it’s two new executives. Then it was six new executives.”
The difficulty of this, Tunnicliffe explains, is that executives were changing quicker than he could address their notes.
“Two months in I’d have my new bunch of people going, we really don’t like this thing in the script. I’d go, no, I don’t like it either, it’s fucking stupid.”
“Why did you write it?”
“Because your predecessor demanded that I put it in there.”
The final film is a compromise; maybe a 65-35 split in his favour, by his reckoning. To have dragged it through this process must feel like a win, especially with so many suits intent on exorcising the more extreme elements of the movie.
But it’s Hellraiser; isn’t it meant to be extreme? In an almost mournful tone, Tunnicliffe explains how one segment was softened.
“They were like, no vomit eating, not gonna happen. Although what’s really weird is when you see reviewers reviewing the movie, they say people are eating vomit in the film all the time. And I’m like, there’s no vomit eating; I wanted it but they wouldn’t allow it.”
Hellraiser: Judgment and Hellraiser: Revelations are on digital demand, DVD and Blu-ray now.
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