I’ll say it out front. Hellraiser lives up to its reputation. It also holds up very well, something which can’t be said for a ton of mid-80’s horror films. Clive Barker’s psychosexually violent tale of lust, sadomasochism, and infidelity is as effective in today’s torture-porn saturated landscape as it was upon its release in 1987 and if nothing else deserves praise for introducing two of horror’s most iconic images – the baroque Lament Configuration and the perverse, demonic Cenobites.
The heart of the story is a thoroughly dysfunctional love triangle between nebbish Larry (Andrew Robinson), his cold, spiteful wife Julia (Clare Higgins), and Larry’s n’er-do-well brother Frank (Sean Chapman). Larry is a meek pushover whose finances seem to be the only thing keeping Julia around; on the other hand, Frank is everything Larry isn’t – virile, seductive, and forceful. It’s no surprise Frank was able to cajole Julia into a sexual tryst shortly before her wedding. Indeed – Julia still carries a torch for her brother-in-law, and when she comes across some erotic photos of Frank after moving into his and Larry’s childhood home she pockets one as a memento.
But hey – good news for Julia! Frank’s disembodied spirit is hanging around the attic, where months before he was taken into some sexual hell-dimension after using a mysterious puzzle box to summon a bunch of aliens in bondage gear. After Larry injures his hand on moving day and deposits a fair amount of blood on the floor of the attic, Frank’s gradual reincarnation begins. All he needs now are a host of unwitting saps to spill more of it – and guess who’s going to lure said saps into Frank’s lair? Thankfully for Frank his sex-juju still works even when he’s reduced to a skinless revenant. As you might suspect none of these people is remotely sympathetic, so we get a protagonist in the form of Larry’s teenage daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) who handles all the Scooby-Doo work of figuring out what Julia is up to and eventually dealing with Frank and the Cenobites.
Still the strongest entry in the Hellraiser franchise, Barker’s film is legitimately unsettling. The film’s claustrophobic atmosphere, perhaps a function of a limited budget, is effective. Skinless Frank is a horror makeup marvel – a repulsive, glistening-red terror lurking in the shadows waiting for victims to feed upon.There’s one absolutely brilliant moment after Julia kills her first victim where we see Frank’s scuttling zombie-like form pounce on the corpse to feed…it’s nightmarish and perfect. And no discussion of visuals can be complete without mentioning the Cenobites themselves. Pinhead, of course, is the most iconic of the lot (so much so that his backstory is expanded upon in subsequent films) – but the others are equally horrific. My personal favorite is the Chattering Cenobite, whose mouth is peeled back by metal hooks revealing an awful maw of constantly clacking teeth.
And then there’s the box, or the Lament Configuration as it’s formally known. It’s a clever bit of functional design, both mysterious in appearance and elegant in execution. As the box opens and closes you want to own one for yourself and play with its surfaces (although, hopefully not with the attendant results).
Barker presents a horrific vision of hell lying just beyond the veil of everyday reality. It’s Lovecraft presented without all the 19th century prudishness, and all the latent sexual frustration pushed to eleven. Even the hired movers at the beginning of the film are vaguely threatening, throwing sexual innuendo at Julia and Kirstie at every opportunity. It’s a damn shame, however, that Barker chose not to use the soundtrack originally commissioned from experimental music outfit Coil (he famously described the composition as ‘bowel churning’). Christopher Young’s more conventional score is adequate, but I can’t help but feel Coil’s unsettling synth score would be a perfect mate for Barker’s horrific vision. Hopefully Barker will see sense some day and release a cut of the film with Coil’s restored contribution.
The film’s not perfect. When it comes to rely on animatronic effects, such as the ‘Engineer’ which chases Kirstie through the labyrinth late in the film or the silly flying bone-dragon which recovers the puzzle-box at the end, these things just don’t hold up well. Some of the performances feel a little stilted, though they’re no worse than any genre picture of the time.
The imagery offered by the sequel is grander in scope, and worthy of praise in its own right, but for my money the original Hellraiser is still the better of the two.