Hellraiser (1987)

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Because the ISCFC had started reviewing good movies occasionally, I felt it was time to get right down into another horror franchise. “Hellraiser” is sort of unique because at least the first two movies are quite well regarded – 63% on Rotten Tomatoes for part 1, 50% for part 2. But those of you who love my slow descent into madness as I get angry at part 4 of a long franchise will hopefully enjoy this review series – part 9, made on shoestring merely to keep the rights to the name, and so far the last movie, is lying in wait.

 

What’s also interesting about “Hellraiser” is how much it changed, from this movie to a much broader style of horror very quickly, there’s an instalment partly set in space…but we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. Let’s talk about Clive Barker. His earlier fiction is incredible, full of amazing ideas and genuine horror, and he’s justifiably one of the most famous names in the genre. But his time on top quality-wise was pretty brief, as such things go – his last decently regarded book was probably 1992’s “Imajica”, and after then it’s pretty slim pickings; but he’s responsible for the story which was turned into “Candyman”, one of my favourite horror movies ever, so I can never completely disregard him. He made a few short films as a student in the mid 70s, so he clearly had form in that area, but this is his first feature directing gig (he’d already had a few scripts made before this, including “Rawhead Rex”, and he hated their adaptation so much that he wanted to do it himself).

 

Frank is a somewhat sketchily drawn character, but I guess you could say he’s one of those fellows who’s always wanting to try new things, except his tastes are evidently a little darker than the average. He buys a puzzle box from an oriental bazaar and, after a bit of a fiddle with it, opens it up and is sucked into some nightmarish world filled with Cenobites (more on them in a second). Bye Frank, but hello Larry and Julia, who’ve moved from New York to…well, it was originally filmed and set in England, but the studio thought it’d sell better with an American location so a few actors were dubbed with different accents. Larry is Frank’s brother, a nice guy with an unspecified white-collar job, and Julia is his English wife. Turns out Julia and Frank had an extremely intense affair way back when, and despite Larry being a decent and attentive husband, Julia is obviously not fulfilled.

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They’re moving back into his parents’ house, which has been empty for some years except for Frank squatting there, doing his weird box-experiments in the attic. One day, Larry cuts his hand open, the blood seeps through the floorboards and brings a heart hidden there back to life. It’s Frank! He decided he didn’t like it with the Cenobites any more, and managed to escape. Julia, overwhelmed with old memories, agrees to pick up random guys, bring them back to the house and murder them, so Frank can put more flesh on his bones. Larry is oblivious to all this, perhaps because he’s trying to encourage his daughter Kirsty to move back in with them?

 

This is, admittedly, a pretty thin premise for a horror film. What has kept this series going for 9 movies and 24 years is the Cenobites, and mainly their main man Pinhead (referred to simply as “Lead Cenobite” in the credits). They’re sort of S&M demons designed by someone on the worst LSD trip of their life, and I’m sure everyone reading this will have seen at least a picture of them. Pinhead is up there with Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers as one of the great icons of modern horror cinema, for sure, but the rest of his friends are pretty impressive creations too – they describe themselves as similar to Frank, questers for ultimate knowledge and experience, merely ones whose quest has taken them to some very odd dimensions and given them some impressive powers. I’m sure, because ambiguity is death for horror franchises, at least one of the upcoming series will be a Cenobite origin story and it’ll be every bit as dull as every other origin story for a horror villain.

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I like how almost all this takes place in a normal family home – filmed in leafy suburban North London, apparently; and how you can read Julia’s murders as a reaction against moving from New York to there (wherever “there” is, in the movie). There’s also an interesting view of religion. Frank and Larry’s parents filled the home with religious icons, and Julia’s first reaction on seeing one is to recoil in disgust; later, when Kirsty is visiting the house for the first time and sees a pile of statues outside the house, waiting for the bin men, she gives a sort of bemused smile – although, given one of the last lines is a Bible quote, I admit this might be me reading something into it which isn’t there. There are some very good images in it, and not just the Cenobites, like Frank, still minus skin, sat in a blood-soaked suit just smoking a cigarette (apparently inspired by the actor playing “Frank the Monster” liking a cigarette in between takes).

 

The ending is a bit stupid, if truth be told – Kirsty finds the box, fights the half-reformed Uncle Frank and then releases the Cenobites herself, only getting out of whatever they’re offering by promising to lead them to their one ever escapee. While the effects are surprisingly excellent and the atmosphere quite well done, there’s too much of people behaving like dumbasses in order to keep the plot chugging along at the end, and…there’s a fairly standard “Final Girl” ending, but I don’t feel there was enough about her character to warrant it. The star of the film is Julia, if it’s anyone, and she’s a pretty unsympathetic character who sticks with her husband because he’s got a decent job, when her tastes obviously run in a very different direction. I do like the story of, when the studio rejected the original title “The Hellbound Heart”, one of the female crew members suggested the alternate title “What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck”.

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I’d suggest the biggest flaw is why does anyone seek the Cenobites out? I get the ultimate pain bit, but I’m not seeing a lot of the ultimate pleasure. Pinhead says to Kirsty “we have such wonders to show you”, but the only wonder seems to be getting chained to a big rotating block and having bits of your body eaten. I like the rejection of traditional forms of pleasure, and subtext is all well and good, but it could’ve done with being a tiny bit more fleshed-out, as it were. And I really didn’t get what the tramp character was all about, now I think about it.

 

I have perhaps been harsh on the flaws of “Hellraiser”, which is because I’m judging it against a higher quality of movie – it has a lot of Cronenberg’s body-horror imagery in it, and real fully visualised sexual horror is an extreme rarity. If you’re comparing it against the other 80s horror series that we’ve covered on here, then it’s head and shoulders the best of the lot, a classic of the era.

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It’s good that the story is so compelling, because the acting’s a bit all over the place. Ashley Laurence is Kirsty, and she does basically nothing but flirt with a boring-looking guy before being a standard Final Girl; Sean Chapman is Frank, who looks like George Michael grown even more bored of life; Julia is Clare Higgins, who struggles to get over that this entire thing is down to her awakening at the hands of her old lover; and Larry is Andrew Robinson (the villain from “Dirty Harry”), who does the best with his fairly wet character.

 

It’s still a fantastic achievement for a first-time director, probably the creepiest movie of the era, and still original-feeling today.
Rating: thumbs up

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