Written, directed and based on the novella: ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker (Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions), 1987’s ‘Hellraiser’ is truly a fiendishly unique vision. Offering a discomfiting and sadistically smart alternative to mindless gore, this classic horror rarely has a tiresome moment, utilising its outstanding practical effects and onslaught of intriguing ideas to great effect, up to the point where the film sequentially became a victim of its own success, being so influential that it not only spawned a decades’ worth of poor imitations, but even its own series of continuously disappointing sequels. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that the original: ‘Hellraiser’ is an unforgettable excursion into a netherworld of monsters, murder and disloyalty.
Plot Summary: When ‘Kirsty’s father: ‘Larry’ and stepmother: ‘Julia,’ move into ‘Larry’s childhood home, ‘Julia’ discovers the newly resurrected, partially-formed body of her brother-in-law: ‘Frank,’ a sexual deviant who lost his physical form after solving a supernatural puzzle box which summons a group of multi-dimensional demon sadists known as ‘The Cenobites.’ Now, to reclaim his body, ‘Frank’ convinces ‘Julia,’ his one-time lover, to lure unsuspecting men back to the house so he can use their blood to revitalise himself and escape the clutches of the demonic beings pursuing him…
One of the central concepts of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise; a seemingly innocuous puzzle box that is, in reality, a gateway to Hell, has its basis in the urban legend of: ‘The Devil’s Toy Box,’ which concerns a six-sided cube constructed of inward-facing mirrors. According to the legend, individuals who enter the structure will undergo disturbing phenomena that will simultaneously grant them a revelatory experience and permanently warp their mind. This story has heavy ties to the idea of insanity, which is certainly prevalent throughout ‘Hellraiser,’ as the film similar to the rest of Clive Barker’s work, is very surreal in nature. However, unlike the rest of Barker’s work, the budget for: ‘Hellraiser’ was astonishingly low at around £730,000. Whilst this was most likely due to Barker’s lack of filmmaking experience (only having directed two short films at the time), ‘Hellrasier’ quickly earned over £14 million, immediately cementing Barker as a promising writer and director in addition to establishing ‘Hellraiser’ as a series we’d still see years down the line.
The superb cast of Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman and Ashley Laurence all effectively serve their purpose within the narrative, as ‘Hellraiser’ admirably values its characters more than many other horror films, developing each of the family members so they feel both genuine and distinct from one another, ensuring the pivotal plot threads of adultery and ‘Julia’s subsequent guilt remain riveting. Then, of course, there is Doug Bradley as the film’s icon: ‘Pinhead,’ who, despite being kept in the background for a majority of the runtime, gives a solid performance, especially considering ‘Pinhead,’ similar to the rest of: ‘The Cenobites,’ has very limited dialogue and screen-time.
Speaking of iconography, while ‘Hellraiser’ no doubt has its fair share of recognisable shots, much of this iconic imagery isn’t due to the cinematography by Robin Vidgeon, but more so because of the film’s masterful creature, costume, and prop design. As the camerawork itself, although dynamic, often just falls back on conventional close-ups and mid-shots with the occasional zoom or tilt thrown in to further magnify the effects on-screen.
For the original score, Clive Barker originally wanted the experimental electronic music group, Coil, to compose music for the film, but when that notion was rejected, the film’s editor Tony Randel suggested composer Christopher Young as a replacement. And truthfully, I feel this was for the better, as Young’s score perfectly lends itself to the dreamlike, otherwordly tone of the film, with the opening theme: ‘Hellraiser’ being a grand orchestral piece with a dark, fairytale-like undertone, whilst tracks like ‘Resurrection’ and ‘The Lament Configuration’ have an unnerving, almost gothic quality to them.
But it’s undoubtedly the artful designs of: ‘Hellrasier’ that make the film so unique, with the grotesque and somewhat fetishistic designs of: ‘Pinhead’ and the other ‘Cenobites’ being particularly striking, as Clive Barker drew inspiration for their diverse looks from punk fashion, catholicism, and visits he took to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam. Interestingly, in spite of the character’s reputation, in the novella, ‘Pinhead’ is present but is not the lead ‘Cenobite.’ ‘The Female Cenobite,’ ‘The Chatterer’ and ‘The Engineer’ all have more prominent roles, but as a result of the visually impressive yet extremely restrictive prosthetic makeup for the respective characters, ‘Pinhead’ took point on account of Doug Bradley’s prosthetics allowing for the most facial movement, promptly resulting in ‘Pinhead’ becoming the face of the franchise.
To conclude, ‘Hellraiser’ is truly one of the most gruesome, indelible and captivating horror films of the 1980s. And even though it’ll no longer leave audiences chilled to the bone just as it did way back when, ‘Hellraiser’ is still an exceptionally eerie slice of ’80s horror, and its importance in the history of cinema can’t be discredited. As not only did the film force ostentatious critics to accept that the horror genre could have real artistic weight, but it also pushed the boundaries of practical effects, with many of its effects even outshining today’s CG efforts. Final Rating: 8/10.