I think that Hellraiser is one of the most mis-remembered films and would be included in the theory that general understanding not matching the original intent. This is in part due to the lesser sequels (3 onwards) and the way in which Pinhead has been marketed over the years. He is remembered as a horror icon in the same vain as Freddy, Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers but he is very different to all of these and so much more. The three I mentioned are icons, no doubt but they are all slasher killers, killing with a loose motive (revenge or territoriality) but Pinhead and his Cenobites are not slasher killers. In fact I would argue that they are not intended to be the stars of the film at all.
Hellraiser is a pretty accurate translation of Clive Barker’s novella “The Hellbound Heart”, likely because the film was written and directed by Clive Barker himself. Despite not being a very experienced director he has a very distinct vision and tone that permeates every scene. There are few directors that could have made this film and made it match the tone set out on the page. To my mind maybe Guillermo Del Toro, Tim Burton or David Cronenberg could do it well but let’s look at what Clive Barker created.
The film centres on the Cotton family, Kirsty, her father (Larry), his cheating wife (Julia) and her lover (Frank), who is also Kirsty’s uncle. Frank is the black sheep of the family and he has dedicated his life to pursuing pleasures. This leads him to find the Lament Configuration, a black and gold puzzle box that legend states when opened will provide the opener with unlimited physical sensations. It also opens a door for the coenobites, creatures driven to seek out physical sensation – pleasure and pain, and led by the priest, better known as Pinhead.
This brings us to one of the themes of this story, be careful what you wish for. Granted it’s not subtle but it does play out in the rest of the film. Also this is where a more experienced director may have added some additional layers to the story.
Frank is taken by the Cenobites to experience the extremes of physical sensation for eternity. However he manages to escape and return to the room from which he was taken, a room in a house his brother and family now live. However, he does not come back as a whole man only a bloody skeleton returns screaming. This is a great scene and use of practical effects as the skeletal remains pull themselves from the floor. I love practical effects, yes they can date a film and look bad within a few years but this scene looks great and this is to do with the vision that Barker is bringing as well as the excellent effects by Cliff Wallace.
During the next act of the film we are shown the sordid history between Julia and Frank, as Julia finds him, skinless, bloody and weak in the attic. I have mentioned perfect escalation in films in past reviews (Ghostbusters) but this is an example of a leap of logic that almost breaks the film. Julia finds him and after only a quick conversation she is convinced not only that he is Frank but also that she has to bring him people to feed from to become human again. In the first part of the film it is made pretty clear that Julia is a bitch but it is a big jump from a cheating bitch to a woman willing to kill for a monster locked in the attic. Once again I put this clunky leap in logic down to Barker’s inexperience with film, as this plays out much better in the novella. It is saved however by Clare Higgins, playing Julia. She plays it so well and portrays a board house wife with deep passion and lust that is desperate for some excitement. It just so happens that her obsession has been Frank.
The following couple of kills are the closest the film gets to a slasher film but they are quick and facilitate the growth of Frank, which yet again looks brilliant, gruesome and terrifying using practical prosthetics. It is also during this section of the film that we get the most tension; Barker introduces a claustrophobic feel to the house. As the audience we know that Frank is there lurking in the dark as the family go about their business. The second act culminates in Kirsty finding Frank and escaping with the puzzle box and ending up in Hospital. This is when we also get to meet the Cenobites properly for the first time.
The four Cenobites, The Priest (Pinhead), Chatterer, Butterball and The Woman are visually stunning to look at. Pale skin, clad in leather, hooks and chains with weeping open wounds each unique but following a theme that Barker called “Sadomasochistic Glamour”. They are lit so well, they are hidden in enough shadow to hide the joins in the costumes but illuminated enough so that the audience get a good look at them. Pinhead is the most distinctive and made better by the great voice of Doug Bradley. He is given some dialogue that would sound ridiculous coming from someone else but he gives it a level of gravitas that makes him terrifying. One such line is, “No tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering.”
These are creatures that revel in the pleasure of pain but the film does not attempt to give them an origin or explain what they are, they just are and they always have been. Pinhead actually describes them as “Explorers... in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others” I love the idea that they have always been out there and they don’t care about good or evil, just physical sensation and looking to try something new. The notion that they have been doing this for eons is heightened by the fact that they comes across as business like. There is no huge acting, they move with purpose and look on the human characters with boredom. They are looking for something new but keep getting the same depraved people seek out an extension of limits of Human experience and they have long passed this level.
It is also demonstrated in this scene that they are arrogant and consider themselves better than human. Kirsty tells them about Frank escaping them and they refuse to believe that anyone can escape them. However, they eventually agree to give her a chance to prove it but before she leave the hospital we also get to see a little more of the “hell” the Cenobites call home. A door is open in the wall and leads down a corridor, which Kirsty just has to walk down. However, she is chased out by a creature called the engineer hanging from and running along the ceiling. The effects in this scene are really disappointing, while the creature looks pretty good as a practical puppet; the problem is that in several shots the rigging and puppetry for the creature is clearly visible. It is only fleeting but it is so disappointing for a film that has, to this point, done some much with so little.
Eventually Kirsty escapes and returns home to find her Father and Julia playing “happy families”. Her father tells her that he knows what has been going on and everything is sorted, Frank is dead. Running to the attic she finds a bloody skinless body lying in a heap and the Cenobites waiting for her. They inform her that the remains are not of the one she told them escaped and that they will now take her. I am not going to go into detail regarding the final scenes as there are some really good twists and reveals. What I will say is that the finale is almost the pure essence of Clive Barker. There is cruelty, sexual depravity, hellish creatures and a satisfying resolution which means that this can be watched in isolation of the sequels and provide enough answers to be satisfying but leave enough to the imagination that parts of the film can be interpreted in different ways.
In Summary, this is one of few films that have managed to capture the essence of Clive Barker and delivers a really interesting horror film. The designs are iconic and the Cenobites rightfully belong in the pantheon of horror. However, the film has aged poorly in some parts, mainly due to the budget restraints on the effects and Barker’s inexperience at directing. I am in two minds about a lot of the changes that George Lucas made to the original Star Wars films but I understand his intent. I wish that Barker would do something similar with Hellraiser. This film could have a new lease of life with some CGI enhancements to some of the effects and around some of the rougher edges. Until that happens, as long as you can accept a few leaps of logic I highly recommend this truly Clive Barker Horror. I also recommend that you read the novella, at 128 pages it is a quick and tightly packed read.