Reviewing this film is quite a pleasure. Of all the masters of horror to come around in the last couple decades, Clive Barker seems to be the one you can always count on. Even The Midnight Meat Train, while not directed by Barker, is a great film that I enjoyed quite thoroughly. The man takes a lot of care and heart with his work, both written and on film. He doesn’t rush every new novel or short story into a film adaptation like Stephen King. While there were some missteps with Barker’s earlier film adaptations, it wasn’t directly his fault. Still, you ask Clive questions about this movie, he’ll probably turn you down. He’s sick of discussing it, and feels it is firmly settled in his past. But never minding that, Hellraiser still stands as a horror classic. It was a serious injection of true horror when the rest of the genre was turning campy and being drained of anything resembling a scary movie. Written & directed by Barker, based on his short story, “The Hellbound Heart” this is possibly, the most gritty horror film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but far gorier. The gore quality is damn near off-the-chart. I still find myself cringing at how gruesome Hellraiser is. This film is truly an original piece of classic horror cinema. As stated by Stephen King himself, “I have seen the future of horror fiction, and his name is Clive Barker.”
This film’s premise is certainly original in all aspects. It starts out with a small puzzle box, seemingly harmless, but is said to unlock an experience where pain and pleasure are indivisible. The man who seeks it is named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman). He thought he’d been to the limits of human pleasures, but his fate is unimaginable. He solves the puzzle box, and what it invites is hell itself, in the form of the Cenobites. He dies in the third floor room of this house that is soon inhabited by his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) along with Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins) and daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). After cutting himself trying to haul the mattress upstairs, Larry’s blood spills upon the floor that Frank died on. Unknowingly to them all, that small amount of blood is enough to regenerate some amount of Frank’s living body. He has escaped from hell, and hell doesn’t like that. We learn of a past sexual relationship between Julia and Frank, and Frank uses her devotion to him to regain his full form through unsuspecting men. Kirsty gets caught in the midst of this horrific conspiracy, and things rise to another level when the Cenobites come looking for more victims.
This is a dark, gory, and unbound vision of horror by Clive Barker. In retrospect, it is easy for one’s focus to shift towards Doug Bradley and the other Cenobites as the star attraction. For me, it is the performances of the human characters that are the real jewels here. The emotional and psychological depth the actors bring to their roles are rich and real. Clare Higgins is devilishly seductive, but also, presents an honest vulnerability and apprehension. She is captivating and fascinating. She shows a nice wide range in how Frank took a generally decent young woman and ensnared her into becoming the more deceptive and corrupted woman she is now. Andrew Robinson is also a marvel. While his portrayal of Larry Cotton is certainly what it should be, and doesn’t seem like much of a standout, he portrays it with a lot of heart. It’s sincere and honest. Although, it is his turn at the end of the film which really gets the juices flowing. He becomes deliciously sadistic and sinister. He really chews it up, and lets nothing stand in his way of delivering an insidious, lustful villain. Robinson has repeatedly impressed me with his amazingly diverse and substantive performances, especially in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Our female lead, Ashley Laurence, really draws in an audience, firstly, with her fresh-faced beauty, but quickly becomes an immensely likable protagonist. Where Kirsty is surrounded by people who are either morally corrupt or faced with emotional conflicts, she shines through as the most innocent. She maintains strength of character with conviction, and remains an excellent conduit for the audience to experience the horrific fantasy that unfolds before them. She is the moral center of the story, caught in the eye of the storm which she weathers greatly. She loves her father deeply, and that motivates her actions throughout the latter half of the film. Despite the disturbing and horrific things befalling her, she holds onto that love to carry her through in order to keep her dad safe. Kirsty is an excellent heroine that an audience can really get behind, and feel true sympathy for.
The character of Frank Cotton is brilliantly brought to life by Sean Chapman, who handles the human half, and Oliver Wood, who appears as the skinless Frank. Chapman establishes the lustful and dangerously seductive man who desires to experience the extreme limits of human pleasure. Wood creates a man who has been beyond those limits, and is now a darker, more threatening creature. However, he still has seductive qualities as demonstrated by the fact that he gets Julia to lure in and kill unsuspecting men so he can regenerate himself. However, he is a man motivated by fear of the Cenobites ready to use and abuse anyone necessary to escape them. Julia is so blinded by her overwhelming desire to be with him again that she will do anything for him. Larry is such a lightweight man, cringing at blood, and being a generally decent person that Julia feels her life to be rather bland. Frank offers the wild erotic excitement and danger that she craves. Getting a woman to murder for you in order to resurrect yourself is an amazing feat, and shows how psychologically warped Frank has made Julia. This is the true villain of the film, and demonstrates what kind of twisted evil can lurk in the human heart.
Of course, Doug Bradley does need to be addressed. In conjunction with Barker, Bradley creates a character that is beautifully dispassionate. He has a cold zeal regarding the transcendent experiences of Hell. He has tasted them, reveled in their indescribable sensations, and has been tamed by them into perfect order. Bradley sinks his teeth into what is best described as a standout supporting role. The Cenobites are used, essentially, as a plot device, same as the puzzle box. They are background characters here, but powerful ones. The full contingent of the Cenobites are well played by their respective actors aided by their deeply detailed prosthetic and make-up designs. With Bradley, you clearly can’t help but be taken aback by his appearance in this film. Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite,” is an instantly iconic character with a more direct and identifiable design than his fellow Cenobites, but they are all memorable to the franchise’s fans.
The look of the film is very dark and grainy, but is shot excellently despite its budgetary limitations. There is a clear vision of artistry here born out of Clive’s own dense, dark imagination. The film showcases how rawness and grittiness can create a certain macabre beauty. The gore of Hellraiser is intense and in abundance. For the weak of stomach, it could get overwhelming, but the skinless Frank is a genuine work of gruesome art. Barker has a way to make horror beautiful, in a twisted, demented fashion. The Cenobite makeup, while in a rawer form than later on, truly adds to the texture of this film. Tortured, twisted, and mutilated to hellish perfection, they are amazingly well conceived and designed. I rather prefer this look over later installments which got cheap in the costuming department, and sleeker in the makeup design. By the direct-to-video entries, their appearances became more fake and soft than anything else. In this film, all of the make-up effects work is groundbreaking, in my eyes. They hold up amazingly well in tight close-ups as hooks dig into prosthetic skin, and lend to the realization of great overall nasty creations. The only dated piece of effects work comes with the visual effects, which were simple rotoscoped cell animation, but it’s all kept to minimum. It’s really apparent in the climax, but it hardly diminishes the enjoyment of the film as a whole for me. However, for a modern audience used to more sophisticated digital effects, it might certainly come off as terribly primitive and jokey.
On the higher quality end of the things, the score by Christopher Young is wonderful and powerful. It is highly orchestral for a horror film, but that aspect creates a far grander canvas for this film to exist upon. I have always liked that Hellraiser was a more epic horror franchise presenting operatic visuals, themes, and characterizations with the Cenobites. That’s where Barker’s imagination lives and thrives. While the story is more personal in nature, the fantastical elements are always grand and sweeping. Christopher Young’s gothic stylings really would spark off many similar scores such as Danny Elfman’s Batman themes, and Graeme Revell’s The Crow compositions. The gothic aspects take the operatic qualities and tones them towards more haunting, atmospheric, and chilling aspects.
Now, despite Clive Barker’s belief that this is an uneven film, I do feel he did a highly admirable job. Barker had directed a few short films before this in the 1970s, but this was his feature film directorial debut. I believe a director can be his own harshest critic, and I wholly understand that. Regardless, the storytelling is tight and solid. There’s a lot of tension of varying kinds throughout the film, and Barker delivers it all quite well. I have been a large supporter of Clive Barker as a filmmaker. Lord of Illusions is one of my all time favorite horror films because of the brilliant genre blending work he did there. It is unfortunate that studio conflicts and interference soured him towards continuing on as a director, but he has continued as a producer for adaptations of his written work. I believe Hellraiser to definitely be something for him to be proud of for his first feature length directorial work. This is a classic for a reason. In a time where B-level slasher films were the dominant sub-genre in horror, this film came out and changed the standard for horror films. Fortunately or unfortunately, in my eyes, nothing has yet to equal to Hellraiser, except for its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. It is an excellent mix of an intelligent, original, and ambitious story with that classic Barker macabre horror. It has solid, powerful performances all around creating a very diverse, rich set of characters, and a great gritty beauty enhanced masterfully by the score. This has allowed Barker’s 1987 film to standout still, to this day, as a bonafide horror classic. You really cannot afford to pass this film up.
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This entry was posted on 03.10.2012 by Nick Michalak. It was filed under Horror Movies, Movie Reviews and was tagged with andrew robinson, ashley laurence, author, blood, cenobites, chains, christopher young, claire higgins, clive barker, doug bradley, film, franchise, gory, gothic, hell, hellraiser, horror, kirsty cotton, lament configuration, leviathan, macabre, movie, novella, pinhead, puzzle box, resurrection, review, sean chapman, the hellbound heart.