A British horror film from 1987, Hellraiser explores the themes of sadomasochism, pain as a form of pleasure, and morality in times of crisis. This film is based on the critically acclaimed novella by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart. At the time of this retro movie review of Hellraiser, the film is 34 years old. It is seen by millions worldwide in its life span and has more movie sequels than you could even imagine. So.. how does Hellraiser stand up to the test of time? Let’s find out.
The previous cinematic adaptations of Barker’s work had disappointed him, so Clive Barker decided to direct his own film. Hellraiser’s production will be produced by Christopher Figg, and a budget of $900,000 will be provided by New World Pictures. This was Barker’s first attempt at directing a major production. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is the film’s title in the UK. The Hellraiser series begins with this film. There have been nine other sequels. The series will be rebooted in 2022.
A metal box, which looks like a Rubic’s Cube, is at the center of “Hellraiser,” and when turned in a certain way, it opens up a portal to a dimension not a million miles away from Hell.
Unknown to him, a violent and impulsive man named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) buys an antique puzzle box from a merchant dealing with esoteric items. Once Frank has solved the puzzle box at his home in London, England, hooks fly out of the box, tearing into his flesh. Frank’s remains seem to be being examined by demons called Cenobites who appear from another realm. They then picked up the box and twisted it back into its original form with the help of “Pinhead”, (Doug Bradley).
How does the box work? What is a Cenobite? What does the man know about what has happened to him? In that case, why would he do it? Some of these answers are not found until much further into the franchise so don’t expect all of the answers to be available in the first film.
The house in which Frank lived previously belongs to his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who had an affair with Frank. Since Frank has not been heard from in quite some time, they assume that he is on one of his insane trips around the world. Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence), Larry’s teenage daughter, moves out of the house and into her own place. In the room where Frank was killed, Larry’s blood falls on the floor after cutting his hand on a nail (while moving a mattress). Frank’s soul uses the blood to partially regenerate his body as it mysteriously disappears through the floorboards. As a result, Frank convinces Julia to help him get back to his complete physical form. In response to Frank’s entreaties, Julia agrees to seduce and lure men into the empty attic where Frank is hiding by attracting them. Frank drains their blood after Julia kills them, enabling him to regenerate his body further. Frank explains to Julia that by reclaiming his body, he has broken his deal with the Cenobites by keeping the puzzle box (which he still has). After restoring himself, he plans to leave with Julia before the Cenobites discover him.
A common misconception about this film is that the Cenobites are the villains or the horrific characters. A poster on the wall says “Demon to some.” Angel to others.”. Pinhead and his gang play a crucial role in moving the story forward, but they also abide by the rules of Hell and the Lament Configuration, which sets the plot in motion.
It seems like a crazy plot at this point, but it plays out as a great film. You have to give it a full watch and possibly a re-watch to fully understand everything that is happening just in these few opening scenes. What’s immediately striking about the movie is its serious tone at a time when horror films (particularly Nightmare on Elm Street or Evil Dead) are often widely comic in tone. Despite one slimy monster, referred to as The Engineer in the story, but unnamed here, the overall tone is straightforward and relentlessly menacing.
Julia brings a strange man home. Kirsty discovers this when she sneaks into the house. After Julia bludgeons the man in the attic, Frank eats his body. Kirsty goes into the attic unaware of what is happening inside. As soon as Kirsty hears the bloody man stumble out of the attic, the skinless Frank approaches her. Kirsty grabs the puzzle box before Frank can grab her. The moment she realizes what it is worth to Frank, she throws it out the window and escapes from the house, picking up the box as she goes.
Taking inspiration from the 80s punk scene (think leather, studs, and piercings), Barker’s unrelentingly grim Hellraiser probingly explores the relationship between pain and pleasure.
After collapsing in the street, Kirsty awakens in the hospital. Until the doctors hand her the puzzle box, she tells herself it was all a nightmare. After playing with the puzzle box for a while, Kirsty figures out how to solve it. Kirsty finds out about the Cenobites when she opens a dimensional door in her hospital room. Kirsty learns that Pinhead has summoned them, so they must take her to Hell. In exchange for her freedom, she offers to lead them to Frank if they spare her. She’s warned against deception by the Cenobites, with Pinhead uttering his famous line, “we’ll tear your soul apart.”
In an effort to warn her father about Frank, Kirsty escapes the hospital and runs to her father’s home. A bloody body is found in the attic by Julia, and Larry informs Kirsty that Frank has been taken care of. In a return appearance, the Cenobites demand to know who killed her. Kirsty runs to warn her father that they want her father. Her father has been murdered and Frank has stolen his skin and disguised it like a suit to fool Kirsty into believing that he is her father. However, Kirsty soon realizes that Frank is not her father; instead, he is her murderer.
Kirsty has set him up, but Frank tries to kill her, but a chain clippers his hand, dragging him back into the room. While he screams in agony, these chains fly through the air, hooking themselves into his flesh and holding him transfixed like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Before the chains tear him apart, he says “Jesus wept” as his screams subside. Despite her best efforts, Kirsty is pursued by the Cenobites, who want her as well. Kirsty finds Julia’s corpse clutching the puzzle box. As she reverses the solution to the puzzle box, she banishes the Cenobites one by one.
A stranger then appears and rescues the box from the fire, after Kirsty attempted to burn it in a fire outdoors. When the man’s skeletal remains are consumed by the flames, he becomes a winged creature and flies away into the night. As the scene ends, a merchant who originally sold the box to Frank is pictured holding the item and asking, “What is your pleasure, sir?”
Not your typical 80’s slasher movie. There is so much more to it than that. Like Pinhead promises, The sequels will have even more sights to show us. Overall, the performances are excellent, the imagery quite visionary (Pinhead and the box became iconic), and the practical effects are still quite impressive.
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