Released: 10 September 1987
Director: Clive Barker
Distributor: Entertainment Film Distributors
Budget: $1 million
Stars: Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Andrew Robinson, and Doug Bradley
Newlyweds Larry (Robinson) and Julia Cotton (Higgins) try to start a new life in Larry’s family home. However, when Frank’s depraved brother, Frank (Chapman), returns to gruesome life following a drop of blood, Julia is compelled by lust to help him reconstitute himself and escape the wrath of the extra-dimensional Cenobites, whom he summoned with a mysterious puzzle box.
In 1986, British novelist, playwright, and filmmaker Clive Barker published the third of his Night Visions anthology series; contained within this was a novella titled The Hellbound Heart, a horror tale heavily influenced by Barker’s time as a hustler and experiences in S&M clubs. The story of a hedonist trying to escape the pull of extra-dimensional beings from a dimension that blurs the line between pleasure and pain, The Hellbound Heart caught the attention of Hollywood right at a time where Barker was being heralded by iconic horror author Stephen King as “the future of horror” and when Barker was feeling dismayed at the reception of previous adaptations of his writings. Determined to helm the film himself, despite having no experience in movie directing, Barker nonetheless enjoyed the experience even though the studio demanded that the setting and accents by altered to be more American and he was forced to make cuts to secure an “R” rating. Barker’s disturbing vision for the twisted, sadomasochistic Cenobites was brought to life in gruesome detail on film, especially for actor Doug Bradley, who was blinded by his pitch-black contact lenses and endured roughly six hours in make-up to be transformed into the Lead Cenobite. Although largely praised for its disturbing atmosphere and visuals Hellraiser attracted its fair share of detractors and controversy. However, its $14.6 million box office made it successful enough to justify a sequel, which soon ballooned into a long-running horror franchise of largely diminishing returns, with both Barker and Bradley distancing themselves from later entries. Still, despite the franchise being mired in direct-to-video affairs, Barker persisted in his attempts to regain the rights in order to produce a reboot to revitalise his original concept.
When I was a little kid, I couldn’t stand horror movies; I would hide behind comic books whenever my family put one on and had more than my fair share of nightmares from watching a handful of slashers and haunted house classics. One of my earliest memories of being disturbed by horror was when I crept downstairs one night for some reason (probably food) and found my parents watching Hellraiser, specifically the scene where Kirsty Cotton (Laurence) unwittingly summons the Cenobites while in hospital, and it scared me for so long that the film, and its sequels, took on an almost mythic quality in the back of my imagination. Now, decades later and having become largely desensitised to all horror, I’ve had the unenviable pleasure of watching all but two (as of this writing) entries in the franchise and have witnessed it decline from a truly unsettling meditation on the limits of human depravity to a run-of-the-mill slasher series with an iconic villain, all subtle and nuance having been stripped away as easily as the Cenobites strip flesh. Furthermore, I’m also of the belief that Clive Barker’s original movie really hasn’t aged too well; some of the special effects falter here in ways they don’t in later movies, and I’ve always hoped for a dark, gritty, atmospheric remake that can do the movie, and its franchise, justice. Still, there’s little doubt in my mind that the original is clearly the best in the series; it told a horror story that had a lot of nuances to it beyond simply being a mindless slasher or a cliché bout of “good” versus “evil” and really emphasised atmosphere and desperation over cheap scares.
The film is commendable in its simplicity, revolving as it does around four central characters, the Cotton family, and their dealings with a mysterious puzzle box we now know as the Lament Configuration (or, occasionally, the Lemarchand Configuration). Larry is moving his new wife, Julia, into his dilapidated childhood home in hopes of building a new life together, presumably away from the bustle and bustle of big city life though it’s not really made explicit (nor is it explicitly stated what either of them do for a living; Julia seems to be a kept woman and Larry is just “generic eighties businessman” by the looks of it). What is explicit, however, is the gulf that exists between them; Larry is very optimistic about the move, and about setting down roots in the old homestead. He gets stuck in with the moving men, loves to host social get togethers with their mutual friends, and has a playful, if naïve, approach to life. Julia, in contrast, seems largely lethargic to the whole situation; she agrees to go along with it simply to keep him quiet and happy and doesn’t once lift a finger to help make the house into a home throughout the drama of the move. A major point of contention between the two is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty; clearly, Kirsty had a strong bond with her deceased birth mother and views Julia more like the wicked stepmother, so she’s quite abrupt and dismissive towards Julia despite the latter’s best (if half-hearted) attempts to build bridges between them. Kirsty is a typical Daddy’s Girl; she visits and plays nice only to see her beloved father and she’s primarily interested in his safety and happiness above Julia’s, who she could happily live without.
As Larry is painted as this foolish, if lovable, patriarch, a man who can’t stand the sight of blood and who really enjoys his boxing despite being the furthest thing from a fighter, Kirsty is able to shine all the more as the film’s protagonist. Indeed, as Julia sinks into murderous depravity, the film actively shifts its focus away from following Larry’s naïvety concerning his wife’s twisted nature and more towards Kirsty as she first works to stand on her own two feet with her own place and job, dabbles in romantic trysts with veritable blank canvas Steve O’Donnell (Robert Hines), and then uncovers the truth behind Julia’s shady antics. Were it not for his dislike of her stepmother, Kirsty would’ve been in the Cotton house from the beginning and potentially would’ve fallen victim to the horrors that laid within but her pride and desire to make it as an independent young woman see her firmly on the outside and able to see the warning signs of infidelity that fly completely over Larry’s head. And why wouldn’t they? Larry has no reason to suspect that his hedonistic brother, Frank, didn’t just use their old home as a base camp but literally and figuratively left a part of himself there after solving the Lament Configuration. A seeker of carnal desire, Frank purchased the puzzle box after learning that it opened a doorway to wonders and experiences beyond human imagination, but even he didn’t expect to be confronted by the four scarified, mutilated, androgynous Cenobites or their hellish dimension of chains, pain, and pleasure. It’s only because of his depraved nature that Frank was even able to reconstitute after Larry’s blood spills on the floor where he was torn asunder by the Cenobites’ hooked chain and, having assumed a desiccated appearance (Oliver Smith), Frank is eager to return to his former self and elude the Cenobites out of fear of suffering further untold torments in their nightmarish dimension.
To do this, he manipulates Julia, with whom he had forced into a rough and list-filled affair shortly before her wedding to Larry. Julia is both haunted by the experience, which follows her all around the house, and exhilarated by the memory; in the flashbacks, she seems to be a very different person, loving and devoted, before encountering the rugged and forceful Frank and becoming immediately obsessed with desire for more of his particular brand of affection. Although Julia’s absolutely horrified to find Frank’s skinless, desperate form trapped in the attic, her need to be with him, to experience that sensation once more, and to feel truly alive and wanted and not just lethargic overtakes her logic and she readily agrees to lure unsuspecting men back to the house for him to “feed” upon. At first, Frank is far too weak to kill these poor fools but, after literally sucking the flesh off a few of them, he could easily handle the deed himself but, instead, he allows Julia to bash their heads in with hammers. Initially, she’s mortified by her actions, and the sight and sound of Frank’s absorption of the corpses, but she soon not only becomes numb to it but actually starts to enjoy it. By the time Frank begins to feel sensation and has reconstituted himself into something more closely resembling a man, she’s more than happy to touch him and ultimately willing to sacrifice even Larry and Kirsty to get Frank back to normal so she can get laid again. Without a doubt, Julia is the true villain of this piece; a vile, wicked, selfish woman who’s only interested in satisfying her urges, she’s every bit as depraved as Frank, but her downfall comes from trusting that he’s just as devoted to her as she is to him when, in reality, all he cares about is indulging his sick fantasies and staying away from the Cenobites.
Speaking of whom, the Order of the Gash actually get very little screen time here compared to later films and other slasher villains, but they certainly steal the show when they do appear and their presence looms over everything. Just listening to the mixture of fear and awe as Frank describes their realm, their utter commitment to extreme sadomasochism to the point where they can no longer distinguish between pain and pleasure, is enough to evoke a feeling of dread, to say nothing of their horrific appearances. Mutilated and twisted into demonic figures, the Cenobites may appear vaguely human but are anything but; lead by an enigmatic priest with pins driven into his head (popularly referred to as “Pinhead”; Bradley), the Cenobites come from an unseen realm that thrives on the indulgence of flesh, the exploration of suffering, and the most excessive forms of pleasure. One of the most alluring aspects of the Cenobites is that they’re not mindless, mute killers; Pinhead is chillingly eloquent, speaking with booming, monotone menace and seeking to impose his twisted design upon whomever solves the box. However, while the Cenobites are clearly beyond pity and have lost all touch with humanity, they’re not beyond reason; Pinhead and the Female Cenobite (Grace Kirby) are enraged at the idea that Frank has escaped their clutches and agree to Kirsty’s plea to reclaim him in exchange for her if she can get him to confess. Although their abilities and origins are kept rather vague here, the Cenobites are beings of considerable extradimensional powers; once the puzzle box is solved, they bleed into reality through schism and openings in the real world and their dimension of chaos and torture comes along with them, meaning hooked chains and pillars of torture spontaneously appear in our world. To travel to their dimension is not to die in the strictest sense of the word but merely to be shunted from this realm to one where you suffer the endless agony of their whims without the reprieve of death. As Pinhead so expressively puts it, the Cenobites are “Demons to some…Angels to others” but, while “Hell” is reference in the title and Kirsty explicitly tells them to “Go to Hel!”, they’re not actually from the Judo-Christian version of Hell and damned souls do not spend eternity in their dimension, it’s simply that their realm is so depraved and gruesome that it is seen to be Hell.
This is what sets Hellraiser apart from its sequels, and almost all extended canon, and what has constantly bugged me ever since the second and third movie. I get the idea of characters in the films seeing the Cenobites as demonic beings and believing their dimension to be Hell, but I think the franchise lost the message Clive Barker was shooting for in his original, far vaguer, and more disturbing notions of Hell in this movie. Frank actively seeks out the puzzle box to experience new heights of pleasure so, for him, it was a gateway to pleasure and “Heaven” until he was confronted with the horrifying reality of the Cenobites, who’s lusts far exceeded his small-minded fantasies. When they appear to Kirsty, they are framed as fiendish creatures; “Chatterer” (Nicholas Vince) holds her in place, initially with his fingers down her throat, while Pinhead and the Female bark threats at her for her naïvety so, to her, they’re demonic entities. However, while there’s definitely an ambiguity surrounding the Cenobites in this first film, it’s undeniable that they’re far from righteous or moral individuals; they show leniency to Kirsty only to retrieve that which has escaped them and turn on her at the first chance they get. The aura exuded by the Cenobites is bolstered by a terrifically haunting and atmospheric score courtesy of Christopher Young; ominous and daunting with its gongs and almost religious undertones, the orchestral soundtrack really creates a tense and uncomfortable ambiance that goes hand-in-hand with the film’s dark and moody presentation.
When the Cenobites appear, all Hell literally lets loose; at their, their appearance is subtle and mostly takes place offscreen and all we see are the hanging chains, the twirling pillar, and the bloody chunks of flesh that were once Frank being carefully (and lovingly) assembled by Pinhead. When Kirsty accidentally summons them, the walls of her hospital room steam, blood fills her IV drip and splatters across the room, and the Cenobites appear in a burst of questionable lightning, all while bright lights and a suffocating smoke fill the room. The Cenobites themselves are absolutely horrific to look at; malformed into walking testaments to sin and excess, their flesh has been stripped back, mutilated, and left them largely devoid of anything resembling humanity. While Pinhead obviously makes an impression with his long leather robes, torn open pectorals, and the grid of pins nailed into his head, the Female is easily the least impressive of the four since she “only” has her throat perpetually ripped open by a strange wire trap. The Chatterer and Butterball (Simon Bamford) more than make up for this, however, by being the most monstrous of them all; while Butterball is the embodiment of perverted gluttony, the Chatterer is cursed with unending blindness and his exposed, raw teeth constantly chattering away as he prepares victims for their pleasure. Two more monstrous beings join the film in the thrilling and horrifying climax, wherein the Cenobites try to forcibly bring Kirsty with them to their realm after reclaiming Frank; one is a strange, hideous puppet known as “The Engineer” (John Cormican). Apparently, this is supposed to be the leader of the Cenobites, at least according to the source material, but it just comes across as a laughable animatronic that flies in the face of the disturbing beauty offered by the main Cenobites. Similarly, the janky skeletal dragon that the weird homeless man (Frank Banker) transforms into was a bit of a misstep considering how intriguing the film’s horror is until the end, and these two creatures are a big part of the reason I feel a remake would benefit Hellraiser is it seems obvious that Barker’s imagination was far exceeding his grasp…and his budget.
However, as striking as the Cenobites are in their gruesome allure, the real star of the show here are the myriad of make-up effects and filmmaking techniques used to bring Frank back to ghastly life. after Larry’s blood is spilt, a disgusting sequence takes place in which the finest stop motion, animatronics, and reversed film footage of the eighties are used to show his dripping, gory skeleton bubbling up from the floor tiles, his spinal column thrusting into his oozing brain, his gnarled bones reconstructing, and him screaming in pain and triumph as he returns to consciousness in the real world. It’s truly an impressive sequence in its design and execution and it’s gut-wrenching seeing Frank’s ribs close up around his guts and entrails as they spill up from the floor and back into his body. Following that, we see Frank in various stages of desiccation; skinless, his veins and muscles and parts of his skeleton on show, he’s a pathetic shell of his former, vigorous self until he sucks enough living flesh up to start feeling and looking a little more like himself. Frank even starts smoking and wearing suits, undeterred by the gore he’s leaving behind on either or on Julia’s hands and lips, and he never seems to be in physical pain throughout any of this (though this is addressed, somewhat, as he states that taking lives is slowly returning his sensation, so I can only imagine the agony he would’ve felt when his nerves fully returned to life before his reconstitution was complete). It’s fitting that Frank spends the majority of the film in a monstrous state as he’s an abolsutely reprehensible and repulsive man; not content with screwing his brother’s fiancée right before their wedding, he makes lewd remarks towards Kirsty and there’s definitely a suggestion that he’s engaged in his fair share of child molestation in his selfish pursuit of pleasures and excess.
So determined is Frank to return to his human self that he’s willing to manipulate Julia into killing men for him to strip of their flesh in grisly fashion. Although he assures Julia that they’ll run away together and have all the rampant sex they want together once he’s whole again, it’s pretty obvious that he has less intention of living up to this promise than the Cenobites do of honouring their agreement with Kirsty. When Kirsty stumbles upon the skinless Frank while trying to find evidence of Julia’s infidelity, she makes off with the Lament Configuration; terrified at the Cenobites’ reprisals, Frank accelerates his schedule and come sup with an ingenious plan to further avoid detection. Earlier, Julia had begged Frank not to harm Larry and seemed content to simply leave him with Frank but, at this point, she’s perfectly happy for him to kill Larry and slap his skinned face over his own so she can finally get laid. Despite the fact her father clearly has a weeping, open wound around his face, Kirsty is initially horrified to learn that Larry has killed Frank and this unwittingly doomed her to an eternity of torture at the hands of the Cenobites, and she angrily tries to escape the creatures when Pinhead, furious at Frank’s apparent death, demands Larry as recompense. However, Frank’s deception is quickly revealed as he can’t keep up the façade for long; in the ensuring struggle, he accidentally stabs Julia and the betrays her without remorse by sucking out her flesh as she dies. Having revealed his true identity, Frank is dismayed when the Cenobites come to collect him, stretching his flesh to the limit with their chains before exploding him in a shower of blood and guts. Afterwards, the Cenobites try to claim Kirsty as well but she’s able to banish them one by one by fiddling with the puzzle box as the house collapses around her. A surprise and completely useless appearance from Steve gets Kirsty out of harm’s way and, shellshocked by the entire events, she tosses the Lament Configuration into the smouldering fire…only for the homeless man to retrieve it, transform into a roaring skeletal dragon, and spirit the box away to another potential victim of the Cenobites.
There’s no denying that Hellraiser is a true horror classic; it’s dark and gritty and wonderfully visceral in its presentation, with a foreboding score and some truly disturbing sexual undertones that really help it to stand out against other slashers and horror of the time. The Cenobites are some of the most imaginative and horrific entities every brought to life; clearly, the bulk of the film’s budget went into bringing them and Frank’s desiccated corpse to life and the movie is all the better for it as you really can’t cheap out when it comes to creating horror icons such as these. With his stately, almost regal demeanour and abrasive, sinister eloquence, Pinhead stands far and apart from the mute, masked killers and psychotic brutes that ran rampant in horror cinema at this time; there’s a troubling allure to him and his fellow Cenobites, one that makes you wonder what they went through to become what they are, what their Hellish dimension is like, and just how depraved their imaginations go. Hellraiser benefits from keeping all this vague and looming like a shadow and focusing its plot on the manipulations of Frank and Julia’s descent into sadistic murder in a selfish attempt to get her end away with a genuinely repulsive masochist. Although she’s not the strongest female protagonist or “Final Girl” in horror cinema, there’s an innocence and simplicity to Kirsty; she just wants to protect her father, whether it’s from wicked stepmothers or demonic explorers of the furthest regions of experience and I liked that she was both vulnerable but cunning enough to try and cut a deal with the Cenobites. While some of the visual and practical effects haven’t aged too well, and it’s true that only three of the Cenobites are interesting to behold, there’s a lot of ambition and passion crammed into Hellraiser, certainly more than you see in many horror films. Clive Barker’s depraved imagination is on show in all its twisted glory here and it makes for a fundamentally unique horror experience, one that opts for a horror both subtle and explicit at the same time and which presents a concept that’s terrifying in its implications and sadly robbed of all nuance in subsequent sequels.
Are you a Hellraiser fan? If you read The Hellbound Heart, what did you think to the film as an adaptation? What did you think to the Cenobites and the gruesome practical effects used to bring them, and Frank, to life? Were you intrigued by the disturbing mixture of sex and torture offered by the Cenobites? What did you think to Pinhead compared to other horror villains? Which of the Hellraiser sequels was your favourite, if any, and what did you think to their degradation of the original’s nuance? Whatever your thoughts on Hellraiser feel free to share them below or start the discussion on my social media.
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