Retro Movie Review: Hellraiser (1987)
Creeping into the end of the golden age of ridiculous horror
came along a film that completely destroyed the notion that the 80’s was exclusively producing films drenched with curdled dairy product. Hellraiser is a bleak and incredibly disturbing film, haunting people’s nightmares to this day. It is a bizarre mix of fantasy and horror that’s been done many times since…but never done as well.
Hellraiser is the first in an ultra-gory franchise which was started by the film adaption of a novella by Clive Barker called The Hellbound Heart. This gem of dark literature is the basis for the film and its many sequels, for better and for worse. By worse, I’m referring to anything after the fourth installment, but come on; four good films in a long-running franchise is more than good enough in my book.
The novella, written only a year before in 1986, revolves around the story of the Cenobites and their pursuit of all things pleasurable…only, the pleasure that they understand is quite different from the pleasure that most of us understand. Theirs involves being tortured in Hell forever, being ripped to pieces eternally. In it, the lead Cenobite is a soft-spoken androgynous character which will be later known as “Pinhead” in the franchise. In the film, the villain is played by none other than Doug Bradley, who is also known from his incredible and heartfelt performances in…well, actually, I think everyone just knows him from Hellraiser. But that’s more than fine. He has since become a bonafide horror icon in every right, inducing outrage and disgust when he eventually was not cast as Pinhead, much like the story of Jackie Earle Haley in the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Sorry Mr. Haley. Can’t win ’em all.
The greatness of the first Hellraiser film is that it’s way more of a haunted house film than a monster movie like you may be led to believe by the legendary status of Pinhead from extensive merchandising and sequels. It opens up with a shot of a man by the name of Frank (played by Sam Chapman), who opened a portal to another dimension in pursuit of pleasures beyond any human imagination, which actually equates him being ripped apart into a million pieces forever by Pinhead and company. His brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the home that Frank had abandoned upon obviously being taken away to hell. Larry brings his second wife, Julia (played by Claire Higgins), much to the chagrin of his daughter, Kirstie (Ashley Laurence). Chalk it up to teen angst. However, while moving a bed into the upstairs bedroom in which Frank performed his hellish ritual, Larry cuts himself and his blood spills to the floor. This starts the worst thing that will ever happen to any of these people’s lives, causing Frank to come back to life in an extremely disgusting and gory sequence in which we have the pleasure of a human body being formed out of it’s most basic materials. Oh, and as it turns out, maybe Kirstie’s angst is justified. But that’s all I’ll say; you’ll have to watch it to find out why.
Central to the plot is a strange and mystical puzzle box which allows the Cenobites to enter our world. The box is a beautiful golden cube with strange and wonderful designed carved into it; only this can they come back and help us mere mortals experience such extreme pleasure. The Cenobites, with Pinhead as their leader, explain themselves as explorers who have pushed their carnal pursuits so far that they can no longer discern the difference between extreme pleasure or agonizing pain. So, basically, Pinhead and his friends are all insane, demonic sex freaks. And while describing it may sound a bit funny, it is actually this fact which makes the movie so incredibly disturbing. It’s filled with bloody sequences, most notably Frank coming out of the bedroom floor, but it is also psychologically terrifying. Imagine a race of beings, “considered angels to some and demons to others,” intent on showing you carnal desires so extreme that it may result in your physical body being tormented forever. It’s sick. It’s absolutely hellish. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Trapped in the house, Frank must find a way to bring back his physical form, and to do this he needs blood. A lot of blood. Therefore, he needs an accomplice to help bring unsuspected men back to the house to die. He feeds on it; it is his sustenance. Without them, he remains little more than the basic foundations of a man, sans skin, with trembling exposed muscles and sprawling purple veins stinging in the earthly atmosphere. Yes, Doug Bradley’s portrayal of Pinhead is terrifying, with his distorted voice and ghost-white face, but Frank may be just as scary. It is Frank’s actions, not Pinhead’s, who cause the true horror in this film. Pinhead is but a messenger in this film.
The film’s dialogue is excellent, and it contains a grim atmosphere which was mostly missing from many popular horror and fantasy films from the 1980’s. The sick web of lies and torture that is brought forth in this movie is delivered straight-faced and angry without a shred of self-irony or humor. Blood, guts, and psychological horror fly freely in this film, but it is much more than your standard gorefest; it’s extremely well-made and perfectly executed. The story flows with a decent pace and contains little to no plot holes. The filmmakers make perfect use of the technology of the time, using a bluish lightning effect when the box is opened that clearly does not hold up decades later…but that’s not to say it looks funny. Instead, it’s like looking into a time capsule. The effects were simply the best that they could do in that time period, and one of the joys of this film is seeing how they employed such effects so many years ago.
Simply put, Hellraiser is an intense film. It’s both visually and psychologically horrifying, possibly scarring given the right situation, while also masterfully crafted. It’s one of the greatest horror films of not only the 1980’s but of all time. However, make no mistake; if you have a weak stomach or heart, it’s best to pass on this film. For everyone else, though, the biggest pleasure Pinhead has to offer for us in real life is a damn good movie.