Review 60: Hellraiser (5/5)


Directed by Clive Barker

Starring Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman, Andrew Robinson, Oliver Smith, Doug Bradley

Released on September 10, 1987

Running time 1hr 33m

Rated R

Genre: Horror

Before I start: My previous review was a particularly bad experience, so I am going to review a horror film that I love in an attempt to dispel my anger and bewilderment. I will gladly say that this film is one of those diamonds hidden in the mountain of sludge.

Stephen King, one of my personal favorite horror writers (though his other stuff is just as good), actually said, “I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker.”

Hellraiser was my first foray into the strange and wondrous land of Clive Barker’s imagination. I then read some of his books, watched some of his movies, and even watched YouTube videos of people playing Undying and Jericho.

I knew next to nothing about Hellraiser before I watched it. And I have no regrets about doing so.

Right off the bat, in the opening credits, Christopher Young’s fantastic orchestral soundtrack sets the overall mood for the entire film. Dark. Moody. Gloomy. Gritty. Terrifying.

We start with a zoom-out shot of the iconic Lament Configuration puzzle box as a man named Frank (Chapman), our first main character, buys it from its Asian owner.

BOX OWNER: What’s your pleasure, Mr. Cotton?

FRANK: The box.

FRANK, whose fingernails are very dirty, slides over a wad of cash.

BOX OWNER: Take it. It’s yours.

FRANK picks up the Box, and takes a few steps away.

BOX OWNER: It always was.

FRANK walks away.

Cut immediately to Frank, in his house’s attic, surrounded by a square of candles. He is on his knees, trying to solve the box. He opens the box, hears a slightly flat C sharp bell tone, and a small blast of light is emitted from the box as several chains with hooks on the end reach out and snare Frank. He screams. Cut to the outside of Frank’s house. Cut back in to reveal chains with hooks on the ends of them hanging from the ceiling, all covered in blood and with hunks of flesh hanging from them, with one or two swiveling pillars covered in hooks of all shapes and sizes sticking out at every angle, also covered in blood and flesh. Frank has been torn to pieces. A humanoid creature dressed in black fetish wear with nails sticking out of its head in a grid pattern (I’ll talk about him later) reassembles Frank’s face and closes the box, returning the room to normal, leaving no trace of themselves, their torture devices, or Frank.

Frank’s character is expanded on in Barker’s book The Hellbound Heart. Frank is a sexual rebel, a soulless hedonist who lives only for the pleasures of the flesh. He will do anything to satisfy his lusts, and thinks nothing of the sacrifices he will need to make or the people he may step on in order to achieve his goals. He has reached what he thinks is the limit of experiences of the flesh, and he wants more. He bought the Lament Configuration, hearing that it opens doors to new levels of experience beyond what the flesh can offer. He got what was coming to him; he stopped at nothing to find his next sexual thrill, and this has resulted in his physical and metaphysical destruction. But, as the film will show us, the creatures that dwell in the realm inside the Lament Configuration will never fully destroy a soul.

We then transition to our next main character, Julia (Higgins), and her husband Larry (Rory in the book) (Robinson), as they move into the same house. They find Frank’s things and have their respective reactions, and leave, preparing to movie in on Sunday.

Julia is a very interesting character. She is a very taciturn and callous. Beautiful, picturesque, and immaculate, she is very distant and reserved, and seems to derive no pleasure from anything or anyone, least of all her husband and his daughter from a previous marriage. Later in this scene, we learn Julia’s only private joy – the memories of her extramarital affair with Larry’s brother…Frank. Frank was the only man who was never intimidated by her. He treated her roughly, broke down her defenses, seduced her with his dark and sadistic sexual aura, and she fell for it. This same aura lay dormant in Julia until it was awakened by Frank. Julia likes her sex rough. In fact, their first time having sex was the day of Julia and Larry’s wedding. Even though Frank is gone, she still lusts after him.

Larry, on the other hand, was written to be dull as a slice of unbuttered toast. He truly loves his wife with all his heart, but he doesn’t quite understand how to treat a woman. He is truly a nice guy, but he possesses no foresight, no imagination. He is essentially the everyday, mundane man brought down by his own simple existence and his own unquestioning devotion to Julia.

While the movers are helping Julia and Larry move their belongings into the house, Larry’s twentysomething daughter Kirsty (Laurence) arrives. Larry and the movers try to get a mattress up the stairs. Larry cuts his hand badly on a nail sticking out of the rail, and goes up to Julia, who is in the attic remembering her affair with Frank. Blood drips on the floor. Julia has Kirsty drive him to the hospital.

As the three exit the room, something strange happens. The blood is sucked into the attic floor. Clear, bubbling liquid seeps up from the floorboards before a skinless hand bursts through. And in one of the best displays of practical effects I have ever seen, another hand, a heart, a spine, a brain, legs, nearly everything slowly and cringingly reforms into a skinless, mangled humanoid figure. I bet you can guess who he is.

Downstairs, Larry and Kirsty have returned from the hospital. Family members and Kirsty’s boyfriend have been invited to a dinner celebrating the move. Julia leaves the dinner early, but hears sounds coming from the attic. She investigates, and is shocked to find the humanoid creature, who grabs her and tells her that it is Frank (Smith, but dubbed by Chapman). It even has Frank’s voice. Frank tells her that Larry’s blood revived him and has regenerated his flesh to a degree. Frank asks Julia to bring him someone to feed on to continue his regeneration. After the initial shock, Julia acquiesces, remembering their affair.

Kirsty, a little tipsy, returns to her home where she lives with her boyfriend, seeing a shifty-looking homeless man on the way. Remember this guy. And that night, she has this nightmare. Just imagine me turning off the lights and shining a flashlight under my face. “The echoing sounds of wings flapping and a baby crying fill the room. Downy feathers float down from the ceiling. The room is lit by two candles. In the center is a table with a body on it, with a white sheet covering it. Blood slowly spreads from the body across the down-covered sheet. The baby’s cries get louder as you pull the sheet off the body, and the body, revealed to be the body of Larry, sits up.” Kirsty wakes up, obviously terrified, and calls her father, who is fine.

The next day, Julia makes her final character evolutionary step in her absolutely Oscar-worthy performance: from reticent and withdrawn to shocked, sickened, and aghast, to cool, calculating, aloof, and seductive as she hooks up with a guy at a bar and brings him home with the promise of sex. She lures him into the attic and they start to undress. Frank’s off in a corner in the dark, with a “get on with it” look on his face. I know how he feels. The potential suitor realizes he’s had too much to drink and tries to exit the attic to empty his bladder. But Julia has already locked the door, and when the poor lamb’s back is turned, Julia smashes his head in with three blows from a hammer. This spatters blood on her clothes, and she exits the room as Frank moves over to the corpse. We hear odd sounds emanating from the attic as Frank presumably sucks every last nutrient out of the body. Actually looking physically older after committing her first murder, Julia goes to the bathroom and washes up and successfully disposes of the now-desiccated corpse as Larry returns home. Julia confronts Frank later. Frank’s nerves are beginning to work again, and he’s in pain. He asks for one, maybe two more bodies, and despite Julia’s initial refusal, she agrees once reminded of the affair with Frank. And I find part of her to be rather hesitant. I think Frank’s going to make Julia do this for him whether she wants to or not.

FRANK: Come to Daddy.

Now that I’ve seen this film, that line makes me shudder.

The next day, at Kirsty’s workplace at an exotic pet shop, the same homeless man reappears, steals a handful of crickets, and, when Kirsty tells him to put them back, the homeless man shoves the crickets in his mouth and eats them. Kirsty is obviously disgusted, and when her boyfriend arrives out of nowhere, the homeless man disappears without a trace.

As Julia commits her next murder, she is visibly less shaken by it. Any hesitancy is gone. This reaction can be likened to addictions to drugs or pornography. It’s tough the first time, but it gets easier once you’ve started…and it gets harder to quit. I should know – I’m still dealing with occasional usage of pornography. My own addiction has definitely lessened over the years – I still thank God for that – but I still have a ways to go.

Julia asks Frank how he got to the state he was in, and how he came back. Frank holds up the Lament Configuration.

FRANK: Don’t touch it! It’s dangerous. It opens doors.

JULIA: What kind of doors?

(Brief montage of FRANK’s torture and glimpses of the humanoid creatures of the realm inside the Box as FRANK says)

FRANK: Doors to the pleasures of Heaven or Hell. I didn’t care which. I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond the limits. Pain and pleasure indivisible.

In a scene somewhere around now, Kirsty is having dinner with Larry at a restaurant, and Larry asks Kirsty to visit and try to befriend Julia.

That night, Larry and Julia overhear Frank pounding the wall to distract himself from his pain. Julia begs Larry not to go to the attic, and distracts him with the promise of sex. They go into the bedroom and get onto the bed. Larry’s into it, but Julia sees Frank standing at the foot of the bed. Julia says “No” and “I can’t bear it” both to Larry because of the sex, and Frank because she doesn’t want him to kill her husband. By the way – ANIMAL CRUELTY ALERT – Frank slices open a rat before Julia’s desperate pleas to stop. Frank retreats to the attic while a bewildered Larry says that he doesn’t understand Julia.

And now we switch main characters for the final time: to Kirsty.

Kirsty is this film’s personification of goodness. She clearly loves her father and Julia and is an overall good person, but she is not innocent; she lives with her boyfriend and presumably participates in nonmarital sex.

The next scene shows Kirsty about a hundred yards away from the house, witnessing Julia lead a third man into the house. Obviously this movie is following the rule of threes. Julia leads the man upstairs, where he is attacked by Frank. Kirsty hears his screams, runs into the house, and runs upstairs, only to see the dying man lurch out of the room, managing to squeeze out a cry for help before Frank kills him. And then Frank goes for Kirsty, saying that he remembers her and that she’s more beautiful now. He even tries to remind her that it’s Uncle Frank by using the phrase “Come to Daddy”. My mouth dropped open in shock. Has Frank sexually abused Kirsty in the past? If so, wow. Thinking of that still gives me the jibblies. Frank maneuvers Kirsty into the attic. Kirsty happenstances upon the Lament Configuration. After Frank demands that she give him the box, Kirsty taunts him with it, then tosses it out the window. Frank shouts “NO”, Kirsty runs out of the house, she picks up the box, and runs away, obviously shaken, and keeps running until she collapses from exhaustion.

Two things about this past scene: 1) This movie’s total count of F words is three. Two are used in this past scene. 2) Unlike Camilla Belle from the remake of When a Stranger Calls, Ashley Laurence is a talented and much underappreciated actress, and she manages to act horrified, disgusted, and ultimately shaken and traumatized.

Kirsty awakens in the hospital. She is desperate to call her father, but the doctor demands that she get some rest and, leaving the Lament Configuration in the room, he locks her in. Kirsty then tries to solve the box, ignorant of what will happen. Kirsty then hits the right spot and inadvertently solves the box. A corridor opens up in the wall. Kirsty gets up and walks into it, and this is where I decided, Nope! Nope! Don’t go any further! I don’t need to see what Hell looks like! I didn’t turn off the movie, but I was telling Kirsty to not go any further. In fact, the movie itself tells her when a pink monster hanging upside-down from the ceiling appears and chases her out of the corridor, which closes behind her. The TV in the corner of the hospital room that had heretofore been playing a video of a red rose blooming is interrupted by static and feeds of an IV saline bag sucking blood and eventually bursting and white flowers blooming. That dang bell tolls. Even the soundtrack glitches a bit.

And then we not only meet, but get our first good look at, the Cenobites. First, a bald, tan-skinned, eyeless, lips-peeled-back Cenobite shows up with his chattering teeth on prominent display. Call him Chatterer. Second, another bald Cenobite shows up, but this time, he’s obese, with very odd obesity effects in the head area, and wearing a pair of round sunglasses. Nice. Call him Butterball. A third, female Cenobite shows up, with wires piercing her cheeks and peeling back the skin around her trachea. Call her the Female. And finally, the majestic horror icon known by many appears; he has nails sticking out of his head in a grid pattern, and is the leader of these four Cenobites: Pinhead. All four Cenobites have areas of revealed flesh where torture has or is going on, featuring what Clive Barker refers to as “repulsive glamour”. They are all horrifically mutilated, and wear black fetish wear that is permanently attached to their bodies with body piercings. The bell sound that I fear is the herald for the Cenobites’ arrival.

By the way, Pinhead is actually not the lead Cenobite’s name. Doug Bradley was credited as “Lead Cenobite”, but he was nicknamed Pinhead. Clive Barker wasn’t happy with this, so in his recent novel The Scarlet Gospels (which I have yet to read), he gave the lead Cenobite the name of the Hell Priest. So that is what I will call him from here on out.

Chatterer restrains Kirsty as Butterball looks on and Female remains the Hell Priest’s cohort.

HELL PRIEST: The box. You opened it. We came.

It’s just a puzzle box.

HELL PRIEST: Oh no. It is a means to summon us.

What even are the Cenobites?

HELL PRIEST: Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some; angels to others.

The opening of the box was an accident. Can’t they just go back?

FEMALE: We can’t. Not alone.

HELL PRIEST: You solved the box. We came. Now you must come with us. Taste our pleasures.

Kirsty is obviously going bonkers with terror.

HELL PRIEST: Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.

Kirsty, desperate, comes up with an idea. She tells the Cenobites to wait.

HELL PRIEST: No time for argument.

Kirsty asks if they’ve done this before.

HELL PRIEST: Many, many times.

Kirsty asks if they know Frank.

FEMALE: Oh, yes.

Kirsty says that Frank escaped them.

HELL PRIEST: Nobody escapes us.

Kirsty says that she’s seen him.

FEMALE: Impossible.

HELL PRIEST: Supposing he had escaped us, what has that to do with you?

Kirsty says that she can take them to him, and trade him for herself.

FEMALE: Perhaps we prefer you.

HELL PRIEST: I want to hear him confess himself. Then, maybe, maybe…

FEMALE: But if you cheat us…

HELL PRIEST: We’ll tear your soul apart.

The Cenobites leave, and Kirsty is left alone.

The Cenobites practice a supernatural form of hedonism with almost religious devotion that manifests itself through sensory overload to the point of impossible pain through all manner of comprehendible and unfathomable unremitting sexual torture that transcends the laws of physics. The dominion of the Cenobites is a dreary, sinister, hellish land that should never be accessed by humankind. The religious origins of the Cenobites are ambiguous. Despite them seeming like they would come from Hell itself, they abjure any overt parallels to Abrahamic or Eastern delineations of Hell, damnation, demonic nature, or even origin. They are completely amoral, with their ardor and lifestyle taking primacy over any whims, let alone philosophies, of right or wrong.

Back at the house, Frank, in response to Kirsty’s escape, tells Julia that he needs a new skin. Julia, now desensitized to murder, notices that Larry has arrived home. She goes down to meet him and lures him upstairs. Larry (or is it…?) comes back downstairs, and, when he touches Julia’s cheek, he leaves a smear of blood. Julia and Larry (that can’t actually be him, right?) then have a few-second-long shot of a delicious, passionate lovemaking session before both, fully clothed, hear Kirsty arrive at the house. When greeted by Julia at the door, she demands to see her father and barges in to find Larry (it’s Larry’s voice! It must be him!) with a somewhat bloody hairline. She runs up to him and throws her arms around him as Larry (I have a bad feeling about this) and Julia assure her that the situation with Frank is over, that they took care of him, that he’s gone now. (by now, all of my instincts are kicking in that it’s not really Larry, that all is not right.) Anyway, Julia shows Kirsty the desiccated cadaver in the attic. When Kirsty is alone up there, the Cenobites show up and ask for the man that was responsible for this killing. Thinking that the Cenobites want her father, Kirsty refuses and runs downstairs, begging Julia and Larry (I’m just gonna keep dragging this out, aren’t I?) to leave with her. Larry (don’t worry, I’ll only be a moment) tries to stop her, saying that

“LARRY”: We can all be happy here.

And then my suspicions, doubts, and fears were confirmed when the mother of all shudder-worthy catchphrases rears its ugly head for the final time.

“LARRY”: Come to Daddy.

KIRSTY: (Realizes what’s going on, starts backing away.) Oh my God.

(“LARRY”, now revealed as FRANK, starts moving toward KIRSTY.)

FRANK: Come to Daddy. (Advances on KIRSTY. She rears up and digs three gouges into FRANK’s face with her fingers. FRANK rears back, in pain.)

Julia restrains Kirsty, and Frank pulls out a switchblade, ready to stab Kirsty and suck her dry. Frank lunges forward, but at the last second, Kirsty moves to the side, and Frank inadvertently stabs Julia. Kirsty escapes Julia’s grasp, runs upstairs, and hides. Downstairs, Frank sucks Julia dry without remorse.

FRANK: It’s nothing personal, baby.

It was now that I realized that Andrew Robinson would make a great villain. He definitely has the soft, smooth voice that gets under your skin. Kind of like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. And, when I looked up Robinson’s filmography, it turns out that he has already played a great villain – Scorpio from Dirty Harry. In fact, his performance in that is so convincing that he actually received death threats after the film’s release.

And now begins the beautiful, delicious suspense part of the movie – and boy, is it glorious. I was terrified. This sick man is not just going to kill our heroine, but he’s going to screw her before and/or after killing her. And Kirsty gives a fantastic performance. Even the soundtrack plays it smart with this scene by being completely absent. This sequence is very slow, very patient in allowing the dripping-with-atmosphere scene to build and build into an almost unbearable payoff in which Frank finds her, corners her, and maneuvers her into the attic. Frank then addresses himself as Frank, sealing his own doom, as the bell sounds and the Cenobites appear.


FRANK: (Realizes he is doomed.) No.

FEMALE: We had to hear it from your own lips.

FRANK: (to KIRSTY) You set me up, b!tch!

Frank moves to stab Kirsty with his switchblade, but a hooked chain springs out of nowhere and snags his hand. Many other chains spring out and hook Frank, and start pulling away in all directions.

HELL PRIEST: This isn’t for your eyes.

And then the screaming Frank, defiant to the last, pauses, and then drops this unscripted line:

FRANK: Jesus wept. (Laughs.)

Kirsty runs out of the room just as the chains pull taut and tear Frank to pieces, body and soul.

Frank loved being sadistic, but he shrank away from any semblance of masochism. He could not handle sadism turned on him. The Cenobites are what Frank wanted to be, but he was not strong enough. He was crushed by his own ego. He wanted to be a god, but he realized too late that he was only an insect. The Cenobites embodied the vices that Frank and Julia shared, and these vices ultimately claimed their lives, damning their souls to an eternity of torture.

Kirsty starts making her way downstairs, but she is blocked by the Female, who, dragging a hook along the wall, causing the walls to bleed, she says

FEMALE: Not leaving us so soon, are you?

Kirsty runs into Julia’s room, where she finds Julia’s corpse clutching the open Lament Configuration. She pries it out of Julia’s hands as the Hell Priest appears in front of her, saying

HELL PRIEST: We have such sights to show you.

In response, Kirsty puts the box back together, sending the Cenobites back to their realm in blasts of yellow lightning. Her boyfriend arrives and they escape the crumbling house.

Do I want to know what pleasures the Cenobites have to offer? Definitely. Would I open that box under any circumstances of sanity? Absolutely not.

At a burning rubbish pile outside the nearest city, Kirsty throws the box onto the fire, but the homeless man from earlier appears. It seems that he is one of the keepers of the Lament Configuration, as he transforms into a skeletal dragon-creature and flies off with the box into the night, returning it to the owner.

Hellraiser ends as it began; in the same location, with another man who wants to buy the Lament Configuration.

BOX OWNER: What’s your pleasure, sir?

Rob Zombie, if you want an example of violence and sex in a horror film done right, look no further than Hellraiser. This is how it’s done.

If you want to know how a book can be adapted for the big screen, look no further than Hellraiser. This is how it’s done.

While it loses a bit of its impact in its transition from paper to celluloid, it is no less majestic. This film is one of a precious few that didn’t just scare me, but disturbed me. The story is dark, disturbing, and terrifying. It is innovative. Nothing like it had or has ever been made. It remains original to this day. It never imitates better storytellers. It’s all fresh and frighteningly new. It knows exactly where to put its stress. It is amazingly ambitious and surprisingly intelligent in its themes of moral and emotional complexities, with its only rival of its year being Fatal Attraction. While Hellraiser is about treachery, deception, and murder within a family, as well as to not tamper with the forces of the ethereal plane, Hellraiser is also about blind love, real-life situations that are better off left alone, the darkest parts of the human psyche, and reckless desire in its purest form. The true monster of the story is ambition and desire, with the Cenobites being just a cataclysmic metaphor to carry Frank and Julia to their just deserts. It is another illicit-sex-equals-death story, but with an updated feel. Even when Hellraiser’s ambition exceeds the $1 million budget, the film actually manages to say something. The story overall was not written to pander to the audiences of the eighties. It was the story that Clive Barker wanted to tell, as he personally took the helm of directing his movie and not only alienated audiences that had been raised on Friday the 13th, House, The Evil Dead, and Fright Night, but blew them away. It is sick and remorseless, at times shocking. Its style of storytelling and overall horror is very Baroque.

Its practical effects are a little dated, but they still shock to this day. It easily trumps Rob Zombie’s effects by having the blood and actual gore have structure, be reasonable, and have some semblance of restraint. It never goes over-the-top. Even the dialogue is well-written and memorable, with the lines uttered with conviction. I expected no less from a great author. The cinematography is outstanding and captures the overall atmosphere with a very dark feel, a soft focus, just-barely-noticeable washed-out look, and juxtaposition of sensual and nightmarish imagery. The soundtrack magnifies the atmosphere flawlessly, even being absent when necessary.

While the film is all about Frank and Julia and the sins that they share, the strangely beautiful, stately Cenobites cannot be ignored. Refer to my paragraph that I wrote about them during the part when Kirsty opens the Lament Configuration. What made them such effective characters was that they were presented as the ultimate boogeymen (and boogeywoman) by giving them as little screen time as necessary, and keeping them as cryptic as possible to the audience. They were much more potent that way. The Hell Priest himself was made more verbose than Michael Myers and more earnest than Freddy Krueger. Even the internal logic in the rules that the Cenobites live by remains sound, becoming more nuanced than the typical sex=death slasher code. They are pure evil, but fair. Strange enough as it is, the Cenobites are bound by rules, and they do not break them. Though, the sequels certainly do.

It is a sick and depraved movie, and I love every minute of it. It is one of the best and most intelligent horror films to date.

As I said earlier, Stephen King said, “I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker.” I disagree. Barker is not the future of horror. He is the definition of horror, especially with Hellraiser.

I cannot recommend this masterpiece of cinema enough. If you need a legitimate horror film that you will compare all others against, look no farther than Hellraiser.

This is how it’s done.

Final verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.


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