A tale of pain
The sadomasochistic Frank (Sean Chapman) purchases a gold puzzle box from a Middle Eastern souk that’s purported to unlock the limits of pleasure and pain, as hosted by a coterie of otherworldly demons called the Cenobites. After solving it he is taken to their world to experience the indescribable torture of being torn apart for all eternity.
Sometime later, Frank’s strait-laced brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), return from Brooklyn to the home they used to share. Amongst the remnants of Frank’s belongings, Julia discovers a trinket box full of his photographs. She then starts to reminisce about the torrid affair they once had behind Larry’s back.
When Larry accidentally cuts his hand on a protruding nail, his squeamishness causes him to run to Julia who is standing in Frank’s old room. While she bandages his hand up, some of the blood spills over the floor boards - an act that causes his sinister brother’s body to slowly reconstitute itself underneath. When Julia returns later, she is shocked to see her former illicit lover in a hideous, skinless state. Larry’s blood was not enough for the reconstitution process to complete, so Frank manipulates the conflicted Julia to go out and lure various single men home so that he can drain them.
However, Larry’s young adult daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) starts to become suspicious that something is afoot.
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A significant horror
Hellraiser is one of the most notorious of 1980s horror films. It was the feature film directorial debut of writer Clive Barker, who adapted from his own novella The Hellbound Heart. The Roger Corman-founded company New World Pictures granted him a $1 million budget, giving him a considerable level of creative control bar a couple of notable concessions: firstly, to change the title to Hellraiser (apparently because “The Hellbound Heart” sounded more like a romance than a horror), and secondly, to re-dub most of the British cast members with North American accents (as they felt US audiences wouldn’t accept them otherwise). While Barker’s decision to take up the reins might have sounded egotistical, it was borne out of understandable frustration with the two disastrous George Pavlou adaptations of his work: Underworld in 1985 and Rawhead Rex in 1986.
It was a sizeable success, taking $14 million at the US/Canada box office, attracting largely positive reviews, becoming a cult favourite and going on to spawn nine sequels (the latest, Hellraiser: Judgement, is currently awaiting release). Unfortunately, none of them, bar perhaps Hellraiser II, have come close to the original. Barker himself went on to direct two bigger-budget adaptations of his work: Nightbreed (1990) and Lord of Illusions (1995), but both attracted mixed opinions.
Not for the squeamish?
Hellraiser is a nightmarish vision filled with tightly-controlled yet perversely artistic psychosexual imagery. The practical effects (designed by Bob Keen) are creatively gruesome, especially those revolving around the wildly varying physical states that Frank finds himself in during the course of the film. There’s also the creepily creative design of the Cenobites themselves, led by a demon known as Pinhead (so called because his head literally has hundreds of pins embedded in it).
Beauty in ugliness
The film’s production design is rife with contrasts: the art nouveau floral designs of the house’s stained glass windows are juxtaposed with the decaying rubbish left around by Frank for various forms of vermin to consume. It’s similar in approach to the films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci during their heydays, and yet Barker’s touch is somewhat more subliminal at times; witness, for instance, his recurring flashes to “opening flower” images before the arrival of the Cenobites. Visually, the viewer is always drawn into and intertwined with a “perverse attraction to the ugly” ethos. This angle plays a large part in what makes the film so disturbing 30 years on.
The acting is well above average. The versatile Andrew Robinson is convincing as a decent family man who is the absolute flip side of the amoral Frank. Clare Higgins is also impressive, playing a multilayered character who shares some of Frank’s dark streak, but with added anxieties as her own integrity falls apart during the film’s course. Ashley Laurence is the most sympathetic character: a likable yet plucky young woman of the kind that was in vogue in the horror genre during the 1980s. While you could argue that she’s an archetypal “final girl”, it’s more often the males who come to a nasty end here.
… but not flawless
The character of Frank is a slightly weak link in the acting department; he’s represented by three actors through the film depending on what physical state he’s in, and only one of them rises above stiffness. On the other hand, he’s more of a representation of the twisted underbelly of the human psyche than he is a human being, so it doesn’t matter so much.
There are a few other issues that mar Hellraiser slightly. Firstly, the American accents imposed by New World Pictures are out of step with the visibly English locations. While the gore effects are nauseatingly convincing, some of the more ambitious sequences do suffer from a clearly stretched budget. There’s a scene involving a floating, vaguely phallic demon that chases Kirsty down a corridor, where the eagle-eyed viewer can briefly glimpse silhouettes of the crew pushing the prosthetic creation.
Even so, Hellraiser is still a must inclusion on any horror fan’s bucket list. In the words of Pinhead:
“We have such sights to show you!”
Runtime: 93 mins
Dir: Clive Barker
Script: Clive Barker, from his own novella
Starring: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines, Doug Bradley