HELLRAISER 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He’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.
2. The Engineer.
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.
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
THE LOST BOYS
BAD TASTE (so Clive Barker and Peter Jackson were starting out at the same time)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II
HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY
RETURN TO HORROR HIGH
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.