Film Review: Hellraiser (1987)

Back when video stores were still in vogue, I have distinct memories of passing the 1980’s movie Hellraiser. This was due particularly to its distinctive cover, which features its most memorable character, Pinhead. Even at a young age, I remember being transfixed by the image. The pallid skin, evil snarl and, of course, abundance of pins, jumped out from behind the sheen of the plastic covering the film’s case. It was an iconic image, one that was intriguing despite the fact that I was several years out from being old enough to watch it.

In the intervening years since then, I largely forgot about Hellraiser and the horror genre in general. It wasn’t until the last few years that I turned a corner, had a breakthrough and recognized the fact that horror is perhaps not simply a worthwhile genre but maybe my favorite genre.

Such a shift can largely be attributed to a single source: the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Through Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism, I was able to gain an understanding for how rich the genre could be. This newfound appreciation launched my exploration of horror, which is how I eventually circled back to Hellraiser.

Like many Lovecraft stories, Hellraiser is – on the surface – about an encounter with the unknown, with beings who sit outside our reality and thus have motivations and goals that are largely indecipherable to us puny humans. Based on the book,The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker (who also writes and directs the film), Hellraiser follows the Cotton Family, who encounter a puzzle box that can open up a portal to a different dimension. As you have probably guessed, the dimension it opens is not one you’d exactly want to spend time in. Instead, the dimension is the realm of the Cenobites – sadomasochistic demons who describe themselves as “angels to some, demons to others.”

The Cottons first encounter the Cenobites and their world through the actions of Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a deranged, potentially violent hedonist whose goal is pushing the limits of human sexual experience. While in Morocco, Frank purchases the puzzle box that comes to threaten the rest of his family later on. Frank experiments upon his return home by opening the box, which results in him being immediately torn to pieces and presumably killed.

Later on, Frank’s brother, Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson), moves into the house that Frank was squatting in. His estranged wife, Julia (Claire Higgins), accompanies him. Larry also has a daughter named Kristy (Ashley Laurence) from a previous marriage, but she chooses to live apart from the couple. Soon after moving into the house, Larry accidentally cuts his hand, and the outpouring of blood inexplicably triggers Frank’s horrific reincarnation. Julia, who was having an affair with Frank before his violent “death,” is both appalled and excited by this development, and she reluctantly agrees to help a skinless Frank continue his reincarnation by luring lonely men back to the home and subsequently murdering them.

At the time of its release, Hellraiser was highly notable, particularly for how it eschewed the tongue-in-cheek goofiness of other horror entries of the day. That’s not to say that Hellraiser isn’t goofy, simply that its goofiness is off-set by extreme visuals and a rich thematic structure.

For evidence of the film’s aesthetic intensity, one needs to look no further than Frank’s disgusting reappearance from bone fragments to a fully-formed man, albeit one devoid of skin. Seeing as Hellraiser is a 1980s film, there is almost no weightless, sterile CGI on display during this sequence. Instead, viewers are treated to one of the slimiest, gooiest and coolest barrages of stop motion animation, prosthetics and makeup this side of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’s a revolting but amazing exploration of the human form.

Such searing visuals are also deeply embedded in the film’s sparse use of the Cenobites and their freakish underworld. Like all great horror films, Hellraiser has a fundamental understanding that less is almost always more. Despite occupying the DVD cover, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead has just a few minutes of screentime, appearing only briefly with his terrifying albeit hilarious Cenobite compatriots – Chatterer, Butterball and Female Cenobite – in order to reclaim the body and soul of Frank and to subsequently menace Kristy (who is responsible for inadvertently summoning them with Frank’s box). The physical nature of the Cenobites is truly striking and bizarre, with leather-bondage clothing, mutilated flesh and often grotesquely deformed features. Equally off-putting are the Cenobites various voices. Although largely silent for a majority of their appearances, when the brood does speak they have a heavy impact. Bradley definitely doesn’t waste his character’s few lines of laconic dialogue. He speaks with a hellish baritone with gravely inflections, and the power of his delivery makes you believe in some of the film’s grandiose dialogue, such as when Pinhead growls, “We’ll tear your soul apart!”

George Lucas once infamously said back in the 1980s, “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as end to themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” The philosophy of the 1980s version of Lucas – which is directly contradicted by the outrageous antics of his future self – is channeled beautifully by Barker’s Hellraiser. That is not to say that the film possesses an incredibly complex or ornate story. The premise is simple, but the themes at the heart of the tale are not. Sexual anxiety, the thin line between pleasure and pain, and the human body as being both a source of attraction and revulsion are all interwoven through the narrative. These ideas are expressed both visually, such as through the amazing makeup that constitutes Frank’s skinless corpse, and through key sequences – such as when Barker cross-cuts between Larry attempting to have sex with Julia and Frank approaching the couple with a knife.

Not every aspect of Hellraiser’s thematic structure is executed flawlessly. I personally was hoping to see a bit more ambiguity in the presentation of the Cenobites. Their brutal treatment of Hellraiser‘s human characters, as well as the frightening glimpses we get of their Gothic world, makes it hard to swallow that anybody would ever refer to their ilk as “angels.” Similarly, for a film fixated on the intersection of pleasure and pain, it would have been a boon to the story if the character of Frank would have been a little less sociopathic. By depicting him in such malevolent terms, Hellraiser compromises some of its ability to tread this demarcation and becomes marginally less interesting as a result.

As I mentioned, my relationship to horror has continued to deepen the more and more I age. And now that I am a 30 year old geriatric, I feel that there is perhaps no limit to where this love affair can go. And even though through watching it I learned that Hellraiser doesn’t contain that many of the Lovecraftian tones (aside from the encounter with unknown beings) that initially sparked my interest in the genre, it is still a memorable, powerful and complex piece of work. Like other great horror films, Hellraiser mostly succeeds – both aesthetically and thematically – by using the extreme, the outlandish and the taboo to tell us something that is both relatable and meaningful. The film uses its depictions of blood and guts, viscera and violence with a clear purpose: to expose the deeper and darker parts of who we really are.

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