So once again we have survived.

Hellraiser

tn_hellraiserHELLRAISER is a rare event: a horror author, not necessarily an aspiring filmmaker, turns one of his short stories into a low budget movie, and it turns out to be a timeless horror classic. Like many prose writers Clive Barker had had a few disappointments writing screenplays (UNDERWORLD aka TRANSMUTATIONS, and RAWHEAD REX) that weren’t filmed the way he wanted them; unlike most he’d run his own experimental theater company in the ’70s, where he worked with many of his eventual film collaborators including star Doug Bradley and II-IV sequel writer Peter Atkins.

The movie launched a bit of a Hollywood career for Barker, but mostly in the ol’ Development, uh, Hell, so he’s only ended up directing two other movies (NIGHTBREED and LORD OF ILLUSIONS) in the nearly 30 years since, while continuing to be well known as a novelist and painter. Meanwhile HELLRAISER lives on in comic books, DTV sequels, endless remake talk, and tattooed on the flesh of fans.

Many may know HELLRAISER not even from the movie itself, but from images of Barker’s most iconic character, Pinhead (Bradley), the demonic priest of torture and mutilation, dressed in a leather robe, his head carved with a grid that has nails protruding geometrically from each intersection. He’s the leader of three other “Cenobites,” S&M monks from Hell who show up at your house after you solve a certain metal puzzle box, and take you away to torment you until “pleasure and pain [are] indivisible.” The others are a guy with no eyes and chattering teeth, a fat guy with sunglasses who creepily licks his lips all the time, and “Female Cenobite.”

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They are as fiercely unusual and effectively menacing as horror characters come, so it’s no wonder they live on in pop culture’s dark underbelly. But every time I watch HELLRAISER I remember that they’re kind of a small part of the movie, which helps them to be so powerful. Really this is a story about Frank (Sean Chapman, SCUM), who sought out the puzzle box and the sexy torture, but decided he didn’t care for it, and managed to escape. In a beautifully disgusting special effects sequence, a sort of ballet of latex organs and bladders, he regrows himself from a few spilled drops of his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson, the Scorpio Killer from DIRTY HARRY)’s blood into a skinless ghoul (Oliver Smith) hiding in the attic, feeding on rats. Then he convinces sister-in-law Julia (Clare Higgins, THE GOLDEN COMPASS), who still has a thing for him after a rough affair some time ago, to bring him some humans.

The opening of this one reminds me in an abstract way of what I love about THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. It feels legitimately dirty and sweaty and gross, and like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to know about. Trespassing. Eavesdropping. Who the fuck is this guy, how did he find out about this box, what lengths did he go to find it, where did it come from? And once we find out what the box does (shoot hooks out and rip his flesh) we gotta wonder why he wanted it so bad.

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Even before Frank really does anything he just seems like such a despicable character, a sadistic pervert seen mostly in an almost-rape flashback and in bloody musculature. At least he puts on some clothes eventually. When he went to Hell he left the house strewn in garbage and maggoty ex-food. It’s a home legitimately owned by the Cotton family, but the mattress on the floor where Frank slept is so disgusting that Julia assumes it was used by squatters.

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He keeps nearby an obscene fertility statue and a stack of weird photos of him having sex with different women, sometimes wearing kinky masks. Actually the grossest one is him posing fully clothed. He just looks like such an asshole.

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There are many underrated villains of this movie, including Frank, but I think Julia is one of the most slept-on horror villains of the ’80s. In her daily life she doesn’t seem mean, just uptight. Her stepdaughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence, SAVATE) hates her, calling her “uptight and frigid.” The movers look down on her for not knowing how to be housewifely and bring them beers. Those don’t seem like very fair criticisms, but she’s just not a fun person. When Larry has friends over laughing and drinking she mopes around and then excuses herself to go to bed early.

So nobody would expect that she has this hidden attraction to danger and an unforgivable willingness to cheat on her husband with his disgusting sicko brother. Pathetically, she is willing to kill for Frank, even though she clearly means nothing to him. It could’ve been any of the other women in the photos, or a random building inspector, he would’ve made the same request. But she happens to have moved into the house when he’s resurrected, so she’s the one picking up piggish balding businessmen at bars in the middle of the work day, bringing them into the room for a promised quickie, and instead hitting them on the back of the head with a hammer.

Higgins gives the best performance in any Barker movie. The first time she kills she looks terrified, then orgasmic and elated, then disgusted with herself, taking off her shirt and desperately scrubbing the blood from her hands in a sink.

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The more she does it the more cold and sinister she becomes. She will have Frank again. If she’d never met him maybe this side of her never would’ve come out, she would’ve led an unassuming life, unfulfilled, but not murdering people to feed a monster in the attic. That possibility is irrelevant because she did meet him, and here she is. At first it seems like Kirsty is being a little dramatic by disliking her so much, but no. Julia turns out to be the mother of all wicked stepmothers.

Still, these days when I watch HELLRAISER I kind of feel sorry for Julia. I believe something had to have happened to fuck her up like that. Maybe to Barker she’s just another example of human weakness, and his idea that everybody wants to indulge their secret dark side, and will fuck a monster on the spot if ever offered. But the way Higgins plays her I think she’s damaged. The flashback of their affair isn’t exactly romantic. She succumbs to Frank at knife point. She tells him no at first, and that doesn’t stop him. Yes, it’s clear as the scene continues that she actually is into him, and does want him to do that, but I don’t think that makes a difference to him. For her to give everything for a scumbag like this there’s gotta be a little more to the story than just “she likes bad boys.”

I mean, the guy has a dragon tattoo on his back. And he’s not Asian. Come on.

Frank and Julia are the true villains of the movie. Pinhead and the Cenobites are a neutral threat, a danger to them as well as Kirsty, even after Kirsty makes a bargain with them. Their perverse design, combined with simple sound and lighting and set decoration techniques gives them an otherworldly power made more intense by the briefness of the encounters. Just for a minute the walls opened up and there were wet chains and hooks hanging from the ceiling and weird spinning columns with faces attached to them spinning around and holy shit I’m glad I got the fuck out of there. I tell you what, I’m gonna go ahead and not travel around the world trying to find one of those puzzle boxes. And if someone gives me one as a gift or something I will be sure not to set up a circle of candles in an empty room and sit naked and solve it. This is my solemn promise. I’m just NOT a Cenobitic torture guy AT ALL. Not my bag.

There are two other underrated characters in this movie. In fact, they are so much less popular than Pinhead that I had kinda forgot about them when I watched this movie again last year.

1. The guy that eats bugs.

still_hellraiser8He’s like a weird, bearded derelict who follows Kirsty around a little bit. At one point he comes into the pet shop where she works and eats a fistful of grasshoppers. Which I’m against. It’s like sampling the candy in the bulk foods bins. You just don’t do it.

Anyway, I always forget this, but at the very end he turns into a skeleton dragon thing and flies away with the box. I assume he’s some sort of demon or anti-angel whose job it is to keep the box circulating. Otherwise somebody uses it, they leave it in a shoe box in their garage somewhere, nobody new gets tortured for years.

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2. The Engineer.

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I know that’s what this character is called, but I don’t actually know why. He’s the weird monster guy that comes running at them down the hallway. Seems more like a guard dog than an engineer, but I shouldn’t judge him by his looks.

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Part of the Engineer scene is shown in flashback in HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II, but otherwise neither of these characters are used in the sequels, so they didn’t really get included in the expanding mythology. That’s why I would like to take this time to salute their contributions to HELLRAISER. Bug eating guy and Engineer, we thank you for your service.

* * *

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There’s some fucked up shit in this movie. There’s a scene where Julia’s getting frisky with her husband, who doesn’t realize that his skinless resurrected brother has snuck up behind him and is cutting open a rat with a switchblade to scare Julia. Also there’s the scene where Frank gets his whole head ripped apart and then the pieces are laid out on the floor like a puzzle. It lives up to its reputation at the time as a horror movie that pushes beyond all previous limits. As the critic’s quote on the newspaper ads said, “HELLRAISER makes A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET look like REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM.” I didn’t even know what REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM was back then but I knew it was not the type of movie I wanted to see and the type of movie I wanted to see was this HELLRAISER with the guy with the fuckin pins in his face.

So it lives up to that, but at the same time it’s a neat little classical tale of a nice girl escaping the consequences of her sicko extended family’s activities.

What we remember about the movie is these wild creations of Barker’s imagination, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s also a really well put together movie. The score by Christopher Young (SPECIES, DRAG ME TO HELL) is one of the greats, alternating between quiet contemplation and booming menace, just as the movie itself teeters between the mundane and the epic. And though Barker’s more ambitious followup NIGHTBREED has some occasional clunkiness from trying to reach beyond its limits, this one is very assured.

Think of the scene where Larry and the movers are trying to get the mattress up the stairs, and his hand keeps moving toward a nail sticking out of the wall. Meanwhile Julie is upstairs breathing heavily and remembering her affair with Frank in that house. The rough sex is intercut with the doomed hand until the orgasm and the painful injury coincide. It’s a hell of a way to make us wince with a painfully relatable piece of non-violent gore, but also to mix Julia’s sexuality with violence against the flesh, and to draw parallels between this blood, which will bring Frank back to life, and the act of conception.

That’s some Clive Barker shit for you right there. Jesus Christ, Clive.

APPENDIX: Other horror movies that came out in 1987

EVIL DEAD 2
DOLLS
THE GATE
THE LOST BOYS
BAD TASTE (so Clive Barker and Peter Jackson were starting out at the same time)
THE STEPFATHER
NEAR DARK
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS
CREEPSHOW 2
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
OPERA
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II
STAGE FRIGHT
HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY
RETURN TO HORROR HIGH
NEKROMANTIK
JAWS: THE REVENGE
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2
HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT IIHOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS
ROCK ‘N ROLL NIGHTMARE

 

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 12th, 2015 at 11:16 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Hellraiser”

  1. A few years ago I got so mad at someone I followed on Twitter, who live tweeted his first watch of this movie and was constantly shitting on everything, even going so far to call it a “masterpiece of unintentional comedy”. Some people simply shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies.

  2. I love the weird relationship between Hellraiser and Beetlejuice. How many horror classics have a completely coincidental, funhouse mirror comedy version come out six months later? Strange days, them ’80s.

  3. The Original Paul

    October 12th, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one but I remember it being a great, fucked-up little slice of horror. It’s a weird one because the real monsters in it were never the cenobytes – they were the evil relatives. I gotta try rewatching this at some point.

  4. In the original book, the Engineer was sort of the real power behind the scenes of the Cenobite dimension or whatever it is. Of course, he wasn’t a weird upside-down monster in the book, so maybe it’s not supposed to be the same character.

  5. AnimalRamirez1976

    October 12th, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Saw this at the Marlboro Theater in Bensonhurst (RIP). There’s a running gag in the movie where different characters talk shit about Brooklyn. This was always answered by the rowdy crowd shouting “Fuck You!” back at the screen.

    The scene where Julia seduces her first victim is such a classic. She brings this poor guy back to the house but as she’s about to lead him upstairs she’s overpowered by guilt; she looks physically sick. The guy seems concerned for a second, then gets angry and snaps “You’re not backing out are you?” That sting gives Julia the resolve to go through with it, and even has a cold smile on her face as she brings him upstairs. I don’t think Barker would’ve directed the scene that way if he didn’t have some sympathy for the character.

    You’d have to be pretty jaded to call this an unintentional comedy but there are a few moments. Notably, when Larry catches his hand on the nail, an absolutely absurd amount of blood spills out. It’s also pretty absurd that anyone would move into that shit hole without having it completely refurbished. The realtor who closed that deal probably couldn’t believe her good luck.

  6. They didn’t buy the house, though. It was a family home, right? That’s why Frank was squatting in it before they moved in. It’s my understanding that they inherited it as is.

  7. AnimalRamirez1976

    October 12th, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    I confess I fudged some of the details for the sake of a stupid joke. But still that place was a fixer-upper if there ever was one. Can’t imagine anyone actually moving in.

  8. True, but I think Larry wants to move in for sentimental reasons. There’s a moment when he’s surprised that uptight Julia goes along with his plan. Of course he doesn’t realize that it’s because she has her own sentimental(ish) reasons for being attracted to the place.

  9. Man I grew up thinking Hellraiser was another slasher on par with Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm st etc. Just from the way Pinhead exists in pop culture ya know.
    I finally sat down and watched em (Well up to 4 then I tapped out cause… no) Man I was not expecting what I got. I was expecting Pin head hunting down a group of dumb kids or something, instead I got this introspective look at the flaws of humanity or some shit.

    God damm amazing, but yeah defenitly not what I expected.

  10. Ancient Romans, I’d never connected Beetlejuice and Hellraisers before. Thank you for that.

  11. Ben, give at least part 5 a try. It’s seriously good (although not necessarily fully successful as a Hellraiser sequel). Then you can tap out.

  12. Just googled Hellraiser 5 CJ, turns out I’ve mashed hellraiser 2 and 3 together in my head as one movie and thought 3 was Hellraiser in space, not 4. So 5 was the one I watched up to with the cop having the weird tripped out adventures and the weird cult dudes.
    I watched em all in one big sitting so there sequels turned into kind of a jumble.

  13. Great write up of a classic. My memories will always be tainted of it because I watched it (as a double feature with HOUSE 2) at a sleepover in 1988 and my friend’s dad ran into the room with a chainsaw at some point in the night to scare us. Yeah, it worked.

    Thank God someone points out the bugeater as an unsung hero of the film. No one ever bothers to bring him out again and he’s a little detail that’s just wonderfully creepy.

    The first sequel is good but the rest not so much. I even wasted money on Bloodline in the theater and when I saw it was an Alan Smithee film, I knew what I was in for.

    And damn, will you look at that 1987 horror film list? That was like a Golden Year.

  14. “my friend’s dad ran into the room with a chainsaw at some point in the night to scare us.”

    Best dad ever.

  15. Yep, Fucked Up Father Of The Year, right there. My parents were so boring…..

  16. There was a rumor going around for a while that The Guy That Eats Bugs was actually comics legend Alan Moore under an assumed name, but I am pretty sure that was definitively disproved (presumably by people who actually know what Alan Moore looks like).

    I guess this isn’t really a good comment (“a thing maybe no one knew about isn’t actually true!”) but I like The Guy That Eats Bugs too and I wanted to contribute to his Mythos.

  17. Vern, when you say that Barker was not necessarily an aspiring filmaker, what exactly do you mean? He dabbled in filmaking before Hellraiser (http://www.clivebarker.info/salomeforbidden.html). I am just wondering what is your point.

  18. Johann – I meant that unlike George Romero, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, etc. he was not a director making his first film to try to start a career as a movie director. He was an author who dabbled in different things, including those experimental shorts, theater, painting and now a movie.

  19. Just watched this. It may be the first time, though I know I saw at least part of it when I was a kid. I give this film an “A” for originality in terms of the imaginative premise, mythology, and visual realization of the cenobite characters. I also agree that the Julia, husband, and gooey Frank performances are first rate. The atmosphere and tension surrounding Julia’s black widow routine and Frank’s regeneration is pretty good. I also agree that there are some fine cinematic flourishes, such as the intercutting of dad’s hand getting diced and Julia’s lovemaking flashback, as Vern mentions.

    Still, I think it’s undone by its flaws. It may be anachronistic and unfair, but the visual effects at certain parts are so laughably unconvincing, that it really undercuts the suspension of disbelief (the creepy crawlie final boss cenobite puppet and the scene where the cenobites are systematically glittered back into the box). Also, despite some performances that shine, overall, the acting and characters are a pretty uneven lot. Non-gooey Frank is over-the-top, Kristy is pretty goofy, and it’s really hard to take Pinhead or his ponderous dialogue seriously. Truth be told, I think this would have been a far more cohesive and effective film without the cenobites. The gooey Frank at the house stuff is gross, chilling, and a crackling yarn; the Pinhead and cenobite stuff is silly and not scary. I get that Pinhead is an iconic character, and it’s definitely possible this might have been way scarier in its time, but as it stands, it’s kind of a mess.

  20. Oh man, that makes me sad. The one and only flaw in any special effect in this movie is how rubbery the hooked flesh looks (which they repeat throughout the series). I don’t mind that and otherwise I consider it all top shelf.

  21. The Original Paul

    October 16th, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    The funny thing is that it was fairly recently when I saw HELLRAISER for the first time – not more than five or so years ago anyway – and I don’t recall the visuals ever really bothering me.

  22. Sorry to harsh your buzz, Vern. Seriously, though, am I off-base in saying that this could have worked without us ever seeing or even knowing about the cenobites? The box, in all its mystery, is the villain–kind of thing? I think gooey Frank is way, way creepier and more grounded in evil and depravity than the cenobites. All you have to know is that this box is some otherworldly sadomasochistic shit, and this Frank is one evil undead motherfucker. All the Frank-Julia-house stuff is straight up creepy supernatural horror, but whenever the cenobites pop up it’s like a weird Headbanger’s Ball music video or something. And I really want to like Pinhead. I just don’t see how he works in this film. And just re-watch the scene where Butterball gets spirited back in the box. Sorry, but it is comedic.

  23. I just watched this for the first time and loved it. It’s like this weird little perverted version of an Edgar Allan Poe story or something, with all these little hints of a much larger and even more perverted world underneath the surface.

    I’m not sure I agree with any complaints about the effects. I thought they were all great and really fit the movie. Is it weird that the one that impressed me the most was when the brick wall lights up from behind and starts smoking?

  24. I know there are two or three of you who are mildly interested in Germany’s adventures in censoring horror classics. While HELLRAISER was never banned and is even legally available uncut for a while over here, it has now been re-rated and is available for 16 year olds. (Which is even among “Whatever, I saw that movie when I was 10” gorehounds a pretty controversial rating, although it’s mostly because of the sexual angle.)

    DAWN OF THE DEAD and Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD remain banned as of now. (But since even major labels like Sony currently got into the “Hey, let’s fight with the courts over the censorship status of certain decade old horror classics” game and the ratings board seems to be in a good mood recently, something tells me it will only be a matter of time.)

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