Janus Film Review Presents: Hellraiser (1987)

as reviewed by Tom

Format reviewed: Blu-Ray/Arrow Films (2015)

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 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 or The Addams Family 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 the previous year, and later echoed to disturbing effect in Brian Yuzna's indie cult classic Society in 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 2017’s impressive Get Out. 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.

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