Hellraiser review: Clive Barker’s masterpiece screens at this year’s FrightFest.
Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Sean Chapman, Clare Higgins, Andrew Robinson, Ashley Laurence, Doug Bradley, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Grace Kirby, Oliver Smith
Running Time: 94 minutes
Synopsis: After solving a puzzle box, Frank is trapped in a hell-dimension full of pleasure and pain. When he escapes, it’s only a matter of time before the demons want him back.
It may have been released in 1987, but Hellraiser is no less shocking today. It’s a genuinely warped, twisted and innovative piece of cinema which will disturb audiences at this year’s Frightfest with a newly restored edition.
Based on Clive Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart (and directed by Barker too), Hellraiser follows two brothers, Frank (Sean Chapman/Oliver Smith) and Larry (Andrew Robinson). Larry’s the good (or is that boring?) family man, with second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins) and daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence). Frank on the other hand is the quintessential bad boy: violent, aggressive, and carnal. It’s no wonder Julia has a brief fling with him, revealed in a steamy flashback.
Frank is one of life’s users. He’s a hedonistic pleasure seeker only interested in himself. A variant on the gothic over-reacher, he’s never satisfied and always wants more. Like an addict, once he’s got his buzz, he’s disillusioned and onto the next, bigger hit. Frank’s pursuit of secret knowledge leads him to solving a puzzle box (the Lament Configuration) in the hope it will open up extremes of experience to him. Enter the Cenobites—S&M demons dressed in black leather robes with a whole medley of body modifications who drag him to hell. Frank is in for an interesting time, and it will cost him his soul.
The bulk of the story follows Frank’s escape from hell. When Larry injures his hand, his blood resurrects Frank—well sort of. First just his heart, under the floorboards. Eeww. Soon he’s reborn in a puddle of goo and it’s time to start putting flesh on his bones. Literally. Luckily, Julia still holds a torch and starts picking up lonesome men in bars and enticing them back to Frank’s lair where he ingests them somehow. Double eeww.
Anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, but who’s seen posters and merchandise might be a trifle confused by this point. The image of Doug Bradley with nails hammered into his white, sliced head is pretty memorable and you might be forgiven for thinking Pinhead (as he later became known) is the central character. However the focus of Hellraiser remains firmly on the family unit and its secrets for the main action of the film: on human desires, weaknesses and cruelty.
That’s partly what makes Hellraiser such an outstanding piece of cinema; the characters and their relationships are so intricately drawn. Clare Higgins is superb as ice-queen Julia with her gloriously ‘80s hair and makeup. She’s clearly trapped in her own personal hell of mundanity with Larry, and quickly adapts to her murderous work for Frank, bludgeoning her victims with a hammer like a pro femme fatale. The family home also becomes increasingly claustrophobic. It holds the echoes of past violence and traps the characters inside. But there’s also humour in Hellraiser. In one particular scene Frank, minus his skin but wearing a shirt and jacket (getting increasingly smeared with blood), smokes a cigarette nonchalantly.
It’s not until later that the Cenobites wise up to their escapee, Frank. Not unsurprisingly they want him back (there’s no wriggling out of a Faustian pact) and the final part of the feature turns into a cat and mouse chase through the increasingly creepy house. Kirsty is also tied up in the mess by this point, having opened the puzzle box herself, but Frank’s got one last utterly horrific idea about how to elude the Cenobites…
While Barker doesn’t shy away from actually showing us blood and guts, the film still works on a more insidious level. We’re shown transgression in pretty much every way—sex, the family (Frank’s incestuous feelings towards his niece), the body, religion, death—while we’re asked to consider the socially unacceptable link between pleasure and pain. After all, the Cenobites are angels to some, but demons to others. Christopher Young’s orchestral score hits just the right tone too; it’s sweeping and fantastical but also darkly twisted, mixing yearning and horror.
Hellraiser isn’t perfect. There’s some dodgy dubbing due to studio pressure, plus some of the FX at the end detract slightly, but it’s still a black gem of British horror which will take root in the secret corner of your brain, where all your darkest fears and fantasies reside.
Hellraiser review, Claire Joanne Huxham, August 2015.
A restored edition of Hellraiser is being shown in this year’s Frightest on Sunday 30 August.