34. Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker

Starring: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Doug Bradley, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith

Suppose that you have become bored with the status quo. You feel the uncontrollable need for a little excitement in your life. Maybe you’re experiencing a bad romantic relationship. Maybe you’re just never satisfied. One day, you catch wind of an old Chinese peddler who is in possession of a puzzle box, one which is said to bestow upon anyone who solves it the furthest extremes of both pain and pleasure. Sounds weird, but you’ll try anything new at this point. What if your own desires turned out to be your ultimate undoing? This is the question posed by Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser,” based on his 1986 novella, “The Hellbound Heart.”

Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is one such individual who took the puzzle box without realizing what he was getting himself into. With lit candles all around him, Frank is stowed away in the attic of his old childhood home in London, attempting to solve the puzzle box. All of a sudden, the box starts solving itself. Frank barely has time to react before hooked chains start appearing out of seemingly nowhere and begin tearing into his flesh. That would be the end of Frank’s story if it weren’t for a little fortuitous bloodletting. You see, that house is now the property of Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and wife Julia (Clare Higgins), with whom Frank previously had a one-night stand shortly after her marriage to Larry. While helping to carry a mattress upstairs, Larry gets a pretty nasty cut from a nail sticking out of the wall. He finds Julia up in the attic and gets her to take him to the hospital, but not before bleeding all over the floor, thus partially reviving Frank. Frank eventually coerces Julia into helping him complete his revival, which means luring horny, unsuspecting men up to the house to die. How in the world every man in this movie seems to find Julia attractive is completely baffling to me. Aside from being a murdering adulteress, she’s also not especially physically appealing.

What neither of them counted on was Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) finding out what’s going on. Lifting the puzzle box, she runs away but faints in the streets, exhausted from the shock of what she’s just witnessed. The fact that she doesn’t die from fright after what happens next is a testament to Kirsty’s inner strength. Now in a hospital room playing around with the puzzle box, she inadvertently solves it the same as Frank had, only this time we are introduced to the Cenobites, the minions of Hell that Frank had escaped from earlier. The truly fascinating aspect of the Cenobites, and in particular their leader whom fans of the movie dubbed “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley), is that they are either angels or demons depending on your perspective. Unlike any of the other horror icons of the 1980’s, the Cenobites are not completely evil. They can be bargained with, provided you have something or someone to trade that would be of greater interest to them than yourself.

The theme of sadomasochism is prevalent throughout “Hellraiser,” extending to the extraordinary costuming and makeup on the Cenobites. It runs so deep that I would even argue that it acts as a metaphor for the viewer’s own desire to test the limits of their threshold for disturbing imagery. Speaking from experience, my first taste of “Hellraiser” came in the fall of 2000, which was around the time I first started sampling all of the most popular titles in the genre. For my initial viewing of this horror classic, I was alone and in the dark of night. Although this proved quite an effective tactic for me, I can tell you that it may not be the wisest way to introduce yourself to this movie. But regardless of the approach you take, there will definitely be a few images that will stick with you for a long time to come.

If this sounds similar to the warning I gave in my “Martyrs” review, that is not entirely by coincidence.  “Hellraiser” can be said to have at least some influence on Pascal Laugier’s 2008 masterpiece, and the director himself was at one point attached to a “Hellraiser” remake. In an interview, he stated that he would leave the project if he felt he was being forced to make a commercial film to appeal to the teenage audience. This did in fact happen, and Laugier stayed true to his word.

  1. shnsjolin says:

    Interesting connection to Martyrs, I wasn’t aware of that. I think this is a fantastic movie, but it is also one of those movies that gets under my skin with every viewing, much like The Exorcist.

  2. vinnieh says:

    Excellent review, this film still holds up well today.

  3. vinnieh says:

    I’ve recently reviewed Hellraiser, you should check out my post on it.

  4. Thanks! I’ll go have a look at it!

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