Updated: Jan 16, 2022
Hellraiser (1987) was released at a time when the ‘slasher’ horror genre was still in the ascendancy. The film’s liberal usage of graphic violence, alongside a marketing campaign that focused on a frightening character with pins in its head, convinced many that it resided very snugly alongside the extant examples of the form. The reality is rather different. Hellraiser is very much a gothic horror film with an emphasis on tension and theme, and its use of barbarous imagery was a controlled and necessary adjunct to the story the film sought to tell. Thematically speaking, the film was more sophisticated than the typical genre fare of the time, and the potency of its creative blend provides compelling insight into its lasting appeal.
The film is an adaptation of writer and director Clive Barker’s own novella - 'The Hellbound Heart' - and at the centre of its thematic intent is the question of desire. To what lengths would a person be willing to go, in order to satiate the darkest impulses of their soul? This is a classic Faustian contention, that begins with the covetousness of Frank Cotton. He is very much a Faustian figure: acquisitive but devoid of wisdom; seeking answers to questions better left unasked. His curiosity leads him to a golden puzzle box, and his grizzly demise is the first instance of the film’s visceral intensity. He is literally torn asunder by hooked chains, and his assailants are nothing short of extraordinary. They are a sadomasochistic quartet dressed in bondage leather, known as the Cenobites. Their bodies are a medley of scars, self-mutilation and outright dismemberment. They are a gruesome spectacle, yet peculiarly considered in their ways, and led by the aforementioned individual who would come to adorn the posters and achieve a dark life all of his own: Pinhead.
It seems remarkable upon reflection, but Hellraiser was never intended to revolve around Pinhead or the Cenobites. Even the name ‘Pinhead’ began as a sobriquet. In the script he is simply designated ‘Lead Cenobite’. It was the sheer spectacle of his appearance, aided by the charisma and rich baritone of the now-iconic Doug Bradley, that would transform Mephistopheles into Lucifer. The film’s actual story centres on the brothers Cotton: Frank and Larry. Clive Barker, for all his artistic zeal, was essentially untested as a practical filmmaker. He was aided in his task by a redoubtable crew of Brits and some sublime casting choices. Larry Cotton was intended to be Frank’s opposite: earnest, decent and genuine. He is portrayed by the stellar American character actor Andrew Robinson, who brings a completely convincing naiveté and resignation to his performance. Robinson’s involvement in a low-budget British horror film was a coup, as was the participation of Claire Higgins, playing Larry’s wife - and arguably the true villain of the piece - Julia.
The disquieted Julia, having previously committed adultery with Frank, yearns for another rampant carnal encounter. Acting talents of the calibre of Higgins or Robinson were decidedly uncommon in 80s' slasher films. This further underlines the contention that Hellraiser was never intended to be a simple slasher film, but rather a drama with performers at the forefront. Higgins plays Julia as repressed and duplicitous; treacherous and overwhelmed with lust to the extent that she is able to kill and keep killing, all in the hope of ‘having’ Frank once more. In a film full of macabre endeavour, Frank’s improbable rebirth is the apotheosis. Keenly abetted by Christopher Young’s panoramic score, we witness the reconstitution of Frank’s physical form in lurid detail, starting with a puddle on the floor and ending in his horrific skinless form, drenched in blood. This was all accomplished with imagination, practical effects, elbow grease and a willing chap in a costume. The results are simultaneously beautiful and vile, and totally convincing. At a time when low budget invariably meant zero quality, Hellraiser gorily raised the goriest of bars.
Hellraiser is not without issues. The narrative is mostly prosaic, and as brilliant as the effects are, some of them - such as the oracular ‘Engineer’ - simply don’t succeed. Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (as played by Ashley Laurence), brings additional pathos alongside some darkly amusing interactions with her ‘evil stepmother’ Julia. Unfortunately, when asked to function without a dramatic leash, Laurence is less convincing. This leads to an occasional lull in pacing, which Barker fails to fully address. Technical failings aside though, Barker was still able to take a low-budget film, shot mostly within a single house, and create a pervading sense of fearful anticipation, amidst a claustrophobic environment. Though the story lacks polish, the end result - especially when taken from the perspective of the unwitting Larry - is a suitably unnerving and tragic affair.
Regardless of the filmmakers’ original intent, Hellraiser will always belong to Pinhead and his Cenobites. Despite lingering on the periphery of the story, and spending relatively little time on screen, their unique appearance, coupled with the remarkable violence they wrought, captured the imagination. In a time of iconic villains, the more cerebral and sophisticated Pinhead character - alongside the 'Hellraiser' name - was gradually obscured, warped and finally consumed by one of Hollywood’s favourite F words: Franchise. This has resulted in the habitual concealment of an original and intelligent British horror film; a victim of both mischaracterisation, and a willingness to test conventional boundaries of taste and tolerance. Such lasting prejudice is a shame because truthfully, if one is desirous of knowing, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser really does have such sights to show you.
The 1980s produced horror films quite unlike any other decade. Some have gone on to become benchmarks by which all other subsequent horror films are compared, some become seemingly endless cash grabbing sequels to said films, and the majority are schlocky nonsense. Hellraiser falls somewhere between them all. It certainly features an iconic image in that of Doug Bradley’s ‘Pinhead’ character, and it has engendered an ongoing franchise. However, it suffers the indignity of arriving in the aftermath of the seminal ‘video nasties’ debate of the early to mid-1980s, and thus is often dumped in the schlocky nonsense category. This may be with good reason, as it also suffers from being completely morally bankrupt.
Larry and Julia Cotton (Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins) are a newly married couple who move into Larry’s mother’s abandoned old house. Previously, in the attic, his brother Frank had used a puzzle box to open the door to an alternate dimension of extra-dimensional beings known as the Cenobites, who ripped his body apart. A drop of Larry’s blood from an injury whilst manoeuvring a bed results in Frank’s resurrection. He requires more human blood in order to become fully restored, and Julia becomes a willing accomplice.
Distinguished horror writer Clive Barker famously didn't know one end of the camera from the other when filming this, his directorial debut. That said, there are some creative choices that benefit from the lack of an experienced eye, but I am perhaps scraping the bottom of a rather gruesome barrel to commend it. Hellraiser is not an enjoyable film. It is an endurance test of the highest order which goes to incredible lengths to repel and revolt. The film does a decent job of building suspense and instilling mounting dread but, I found, at the expense of ever really caring about the characters or what happens to them. The exception to this is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who wisely decides not to move in to the house, but grows increasingly suspicious of her stepmother’s activities, thus unwittingly becoming a victim in and ultimately, the saviour of the hellish scheme.
Christopher Young brings an appropriately gothic feel to the score, with sweeping strings and rumbling pedal notes in the brass. A rather unnerving piano waltz accompanies Frank’s initial resurrection, comparable with the work of Jerry Goldsmith or Marc Shaiman in horror comedies such as The ‘Burbs (1989) or The Addams Family (1991) respectively. It is a score that could be listened to in isolation, unencumbered by the visuals, and still tell a far more convincing story than the film actually does.
Hellraiser is notoriously grisly, and still has the power to repulse over 30 years later. There is plenty of unsettling body horror, reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) the previous year, and later echoed to disturbing effect in Brian Yuzna's indie cult classic Society (1989). However, those two films had something else to offer alongside their disturbing imagery. Society is a subversive satire that offered a cautionary allegory about… well, society… pre-dating similar subject matter in the likes of Jordan Peele's impressive Get Out (2017). The Fly gave us flawed but empathetic characters in a nightmare scenario. Hellraiser does neither of these things. It is a film that explores the depths of depravity in an unflinchingly dark and excessively violent manner. At one point, the ‘Pinhead’ character explains that the Cenobites are merely explorers who have lost the ability to differentiate between pleasure and pain. I can – it is not just the characters who endure unremitting torture throughout, it is also the viewer.