It was the quote that launched a thousand billboards. A blood-spattered leg bone ripped from a helpless victim, still covered in skin and cartilage, dipped in a rusty can of gasoline, set ablaze, and passed along by an established master to his heir apparent. A stinking, rotting, fleshy stamp of approval smashed on the slab by an oversized meat tenderizer.
“I have seen the future of horror…and his name is Clive Barker.” - Stephen King
Like Sam Raimi before him, Clive Barker received an immense career boost after Stephen King publicly endorsed him. It’s one thing to be a fringe author, penning twisted tales for both stage and print, but to be recognized by arguably the most successful horror writer of the twentieth century is quite another matter indeed.
Having only written and directed two short films (Salome – 1973/The Forbidden – 1978), it wasn’t until a chance meeting with British director George Pavlou that Barker would make his first foray into penning feature films. The resultant Underworld(AKA Transmutations, 1985) didn’t exactly set the world on fire and Rawhead Rex (1986), a slight step-up, suffers from uninspired direction and a creature that looks amazing on the Blu-ray cover but rubbery and unconvincing on screen. Rex would be the beginning of a common theme running throughout most of Barker’s subsequent cinematic adaptations. It’s nearly impossible to successfully adapt a Clive Barker story and what’s worse, if you do, somebody’s going to rip it to shreds.
Taking the directorial reigns and working with a meager budget, it’s downright miraculous how impressive Hellraiser (1987) is. As unpleasant and depraved a wallow into the darkest recesses of the human soul it is, it’s also a sick kick. A putrid blast of unfathomable nightmares with a little kink thrown in for good measure.
The film wastes no time getting started as Frank (Sean Chapman) purchases an odd-looking box from a mysterious merchant. A puzzle box that, when solved, summons the Cenobites who, according to the poster, are demons to some, angels to others. Much has been made of the sadomasochistic nature of these beings along with the unanswered questions regarding their origins. The sequels, for better or worse, would attempt to reveal the backstory for Pinhead/Lead Cenobite (Doug Bradley), but for the first film, he is merely the most vocal of the group. The group consists of him, the female Cenobite, Chatterer, and Butterball. Bob Keen’s make-up designs are extreme, yet strikingly simple. As Frank’s flesh is ripped and torn apart by metal hooks attached to chains yanked by invisible forces, the Cenobites lurk in the shadows, the film wisely choosing to save their full reveal for later.
At this point, we’re introduced to the Cottons. There’s Larry (noted pacifist and Scorpio Killer Andrew Robinson), Julia (noted stage actress Clare Higgins), and Kirsty (noted last girl Ashley Laurence). As Larry and Julia move into their new home, Julia recalls her torrid and sexually charged affair with Frank, who has seemingly disappeared. A much more explicit version of this scene exists, according to Barker, which included much more spanking. The scene cross-cuts between the steamy flashback and Larry helping two inappropriately horny moving men get a mattress up some stairs. As Julia achieves orgasm, a rusty nail punctures Larry’s hand, producing an almost unreasonable stream of juicy, deep crimson. While Julia bandages his hand, the blood pours forth, splashing on the attic floor like stones in a puddle. Little do they know, this is the site of Frank’s destruction and eventual resurrection.
The blood brings Frank back in an impressive display of regeneration through animatronics. Julia, at first horrified, decides to help Frank by luring men to their death. As a plot device, this is one of the most effective in the film. There’s a great deal of tension and a fine performance by Clare Higgins as she wrestles with the moral dilemma of allowing innocent men to be brutally murdered and drained of their blood by the deranged Frank, now played by Oliver Smith in a mountain of make-up. Clive Barker may not be the greatest at telling a completely coherent story, but these scenes are highly charged. As the bodies pile up, the question is raised of where the remains are ending up. Near the conclusion, they’re found in an empty room that apparently Larry was too busy doing doctor things to check out, but let’s move on, shall we?
Kirsty, who has never particularly cared for her step-mother, sees Julia bringing a strange man into the house. What Kirsty assumes to be a simple affair turns out to be much, much worse, as she not only finds the victim, already half-drained and near death, but also Frank the Monster standing in the doorway. Frank, ever the romantic, tries to calm Kirsty down, but can’t help noticing what a beautiful young woman she’s become. Some guys just can’t read social cues.
Kirsty wanders around in an understandable state of shock and wakes up in the hospital, where a doctor inquires about the mysterious puzzle box found on her. She solves the box, opening a passageway in the wall where she hears the wailing of a child. There, she encounters The Engineer, a glorious monstrosity of gnashing teeth and grasping claws. Narrowly escaping its grasp, the real game begins as blood fills her IV bag and the walls begin to glow. The Cenobites are zapped into existence by some “affordable” effects and what follows may be my favorite scene in the movie.
Jason doesn’t speak. Nor does Michael Myers. Freddy is a motor mouth, but most scenes are short and end in death. Pinhead, as he’d later be lovingly named, is a more eloquent creature. I love the idea of a discussion between a human being and “explorers” from another dimension. The eloquence of Pinhead and the Female Cenobite (Grace Kirby) provides a nice juxtaposition between the horrifying prospect of being taken by these otherworldly beings. Kirsty clues them in to the escape of Frank, further revealing their lack of omniscience. She offers Frank in exchange for her own life, to which the Female Cenobite ominously replies, “Perhaps we prefer you.” The iconic capper to the scene occurs when she adds, “If you cheat us,” after which Pinhead, with the camera rushing in for a close up, proclaims, “We’ll tear your soul apart!”
Up to this point, Larry has been blissfully unaware of anything unusual going on, save for a confusing moment in which Julia wants to be intimate but almost immediately rejects his reciprocation. Little did he know how close to death he came as Frank stood menacingly in the doorway, ready to make his transformation complete by murdering his own brother. His luck runs out when Frank literally steals Larry’s skin, allowing Andrew Robinson to exercise his talent for playing loathsome characters.
The finale is chaotic, to say the least. Julia is accidentally killed but Frank shows no remorse. Kirsty is entreated by Larry/Frank to “Come to Daddy,” resulting in a horrible scenario where she must lead her “father” to the Cenobites. Pinhead orders Kirsty to leave, adding another layer to his character that is unique to horror villains. They may even be anti-heroes, for a few moments at least. In a fantastic display of practical effects, Larry/Frank is torn apart. The Cenobites soon change their minds, stalking Kirsty through the collapsing house, only being defeated by the solving of the box and some oddly-animated laser effects. The film ends with Kirsty and her relatively useless boyfriend throwing the box into a bonfire, only for a derelict (Frank Baker), who was seen briefly at a pet store, to retrieve the box, change into a winged creature, and fly off. A smart and economic move by Barker comes in the form of a crane shot to represent the creature taking flight, eliminating the need to animate or even fabricate a flying version of the creature that would likely be impossible to achieve with the budget on hand.
Hellraiser is an outstanding horror film. A truly one-of-a-kind marvel that was made right in the middle of the 80’s, a beloved but very repetitive era for horror movies. That isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have problems. The effects can be forgiven due to the budget, but still, questions must be asked.
The derelict, for example. Although his motivations do become clear by the end, he is apparently The Puzzle Guardian, a protector of the Lament Configuration puzzle box. This requires a bit of a leap and his presence in the film doesn’t seem to be anything more than a creeper who scares Kirsty. Speaking of the derelict, according to the Hellraiser fandom page, The Puzzle Guardian first appears in England. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the film takes place in America.
I have to admit, I thought the film took place in England. Yes, there are characters with American accents, but the film simply drips with Englishness. It doesn’t help that Julia’s first victim is clearly British. Not only that, but I lived in England, and that is definitely an English house. There’s just something about the design, as well as the surroundings. When Kirsty is wandering the streets, it’s definitely England. It didn’t actually matter to me where the film took place. I took the unusual inconsistency of the accents and locations to be part of the mystery and the dreamlike quality that Barker was going for. Considering I went into Hellraiser II: Hellbound thinking the film took place in England, you can imagine my confusion when Kirsty is interrogated by a gruff, New Yawk-style detective. The discovery of the dead bodies in the spare room is also addressed in the sequel, but Kirsty ignoring Larry’s bleeding scalp is quite another. To its credit, the film tells a story with a beginning , middle, and end, but the details get a little muddled. Compared to the wackiness of certain sequels, these small details really aren’t much of a problem.
Thanks to Michael Buchanan’s foreboding production design and Robin Vidgeon’s superior camerawork, the film’s distinctive look gives the film a timeless quality. Most horror films, especially from the 80’s, are immediately dated because of their eagerness to represent the youth of today in modern times, but Hellraiser refuses to fall into this trap. This is the kind of film you leave humming the scenery, but the story is compelling enough that you invest real interest in its characters, horrible as some of them may be. I don’t believe that Barker was or is the future of horror. I’m not sure what his response to that quote even was. If I had to choose between the two authors, it would be King, but Clive Barker did get a one-up on Stephen King after all. As far as novelists turned first-time directors go, I’d say Hellraiser might just be a better film than Maximum Overdrive (1986). The jury’s still out.
Then came the sequels. To slightly alter a famous quote, “We have such (a mixed bag of) sights to show you.”