I vividly remember the first time I saw, no, experienced, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I think I was twelve. I borrowed a VHS tape rented from the shops around the corner from a friend who lived up the street. Like so much of my early horror viewing, fearful of parental reprisals, I snuck it away up to my room and watched it. It was bloody, surreal and wonderful. I think I watched it about ten times before returning it. It was probably late back too…
Every single time I have seen this film since, it blows me away. I watched it the other day. Same thing happened. It’s a remarkable blend of sado-masochistic and surrealistic pseudo-sexual imagery, doused liberally with violence and amazing make-up effects.
I was going to do my best to do an abridged version of the story here, in my own words… until I saw this on IMDB.
“An unfaithful wife encounters the zombie of her dead lover, who’s being chased by demons after he escaped from their sado-masochistic Hell”.
Talk about downplaying the events of the film…
Adapted from Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser is really the story of the Cotton family and is, essentially, a graphic depiction of a dysfunctional family. Larry and Julia Cotton are a married couple, though poor Larry seems blind to the fact that his wife clearly despises him. The “couple” move into Larry’s parents old house, which was until recently, being used a doss-house for Larry’s wild-man brother, Frank. Frank, as it turns out, is also Julia’s former lover with the pair having shared a steamy romp ahead of her wedding to Larry (and on top of the dress… Ew!) but Frank’s essence still remains in the house…
You see, Frank used the house to explore his deepest desires, his cravings for heightened experience, and solved the Lament Configuration puzzle box, an enticing, intricately carved cube, opening a doorway to Hell, where his soul was claimed by The Cenobites.
Rejuvenated by his brother’s blood as nothing more than muscle over bone, Frank, with the help of Julia, embarks on a mission to restore his body to it’s former state through sacrificial murders. However, the dastardly duo didn’t count on Larry’s daughter Kirsty’s involvement, who after solving the box herself, strikes up a deal with The Cenobites to save her own soul…
I think Hellraiser still stands up well today, although, if I am being perfectly honest, some of the mechanical effects leave a lot to be desired, particularly the hugely unbelievable “Hell-beast” with its clearly visible wheel and the skeletal winged dragon from the final scene though these were more down to budgetary restrictions than a sign of the times.
The cast are phenomenal. Clare Higgins (Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Small Faces) is wonderfully icy as the adulterous Julia. I ALWAYS feel for Larry, the poor sap. He has no idea that his wife is a murderous, adulterous bitch. He is just a normal guy, struggling to save his marriage. Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry, Child’s Play 3) plays the role deftly and warmly, also showing that he can do “bad” well in the third act. Ashley Laurence is excellent as Kirsty, the heroine of the film. She continued to be excellent, despite ever decreasing quality of films, in the second, third and sixth instalments.
But let’s talk about The Cenobites….
Weird, rubber and leather clothing, body modifications and many, many pain-causing sharp implements are the characteristics of these denizens of Hell. They are perhaps best described by the Lead Cenobite as “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others”. There are several Cenobites in the film… First, there’s Butterball, overweight and eyeless. Then there’s Chatterer, whose exposed teeth click together menacingly beneath his twisted “face”. There is also the Female Cenobite, with her exposed larynx and pierced cheeks.
Which brings us on to the Lead Cenobite, or as he would later come to be known, Pinhead. (The name Pinhead didn’t actually come about until the sequel) An incredible performance from Doug Bradley, despite only being a supporting character. Bradley, like Robert Englund, has taken the role of a villain and made it infinitely likeable and absolutely his own. Pinhead has gone on to achieve a similar cult status to the likes of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. He is my FAVOURITE recurring horror villain and I have him proudly tattooed on my left shoulder.
Hellraiser features some outstanding make-up, not least of all that of The Cenobites. The “Monster Frank” make-ups are incredible. Bob Keen’s team really researched the human body to make it all as visceral as possible. Frank’s rebirth scene is still an absolutely amazingly well realised sequence.
All of this, the iconic characters, the make-up and Barker’s shrewd direction are rounded off with a stunning orchestral score by Christopher Young (Drag Me To Hell, The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
To date, it has spawned 8 sequels, the most recent being the car-crash that is Hellraiser: Revelations, where, for the first time, Doug Bradley doesn’t appear as Pinhead. There have also been several comic books published. A remake has been in the works for a long, long time, which recently had Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) attached to direct Jason X scribe Todd Farmer’s script. Neither are now involved and the project currently sits in limbo.
Bin it. This is as good as it gets.
All in all, Hellraiser is one of my favourite films and in my opinion, one of the finest British horror films of all time. It’s a gothic nightmare. A demonic morality tale. It’s a film that I hold dear and one of the films that made me want to become a film-maker myself.
I owe it a lot.