Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hellraiser (1987)

This is one of those films that slipped by my radar over the years. Sure all my horror-fiend pals told me how great and gory this movie was, but I was never too interested. Since I do enjoy Clive Barker’s short stories, especially his Books of Blood I finally decided to give Pinhead and his cronies a shot.

It all starts with a man named Frank (Sean Chapman) buying a mysterious puzzle box. He takes it to a secluded location and attempts to unravel its secrets. The next thing we see is Frank screaming as hooks plunge into his skin.

Then we meet Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) as they explore Larry’s old family house. Sure it’s a fixer up, what with the maggots crawling all over the kitchen, but its got lots of space and is the perfect place for them to get their marriage back on track.

A freak accident causes Larry to cut his hand. As his blood drips onto the floor of an unused room, it is absorbed into something beneath the floor. The creature that emerges has a history with Julia, and its sights set on Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) Larry’s daughter. What is the sinister force waiting to tear this family apart from within?

Good Points:
  • A creative and sinister story
  • Great practical gore and monster effects
  • Never explains everything, keeping the mystery intriguing

Bad Points:
  • A few things make little or no sense
  • Pretty gross, not for the squeamish
  • The clothes and hair are super ‘80s 

A nice surprise. The heart of the story is a tale of dark desires, screwed up relationships and of course a dimensional door leading into depravity. Sure it goes over the top with the gore, but in the end it’s a solid horror fantasy, well worth seeking out if you are looking for something a bit more creative in the horror realm.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
It’s pretty rare that a popular author is given a chance to helm their own feature film. It can yield some good movies. Michael Crichton had some luck with Westworld and Coma. But the less said about Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive the better. So when I heard Clive Barker directed Hellraiser I was leery. I’d seen Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions, both had their moments, but were missing something that really made them click.

While it is rough in a few places, overall Hellraiser works because it was put together so well. The basic dynamics of the story are fairly simple. You’ve got a dysfunctional family that completely unravels. Larry and Frank are as different as brothers can be. Larry is a dangerous, domineering womanizer looking for the latest thrill in everything he does. Frank is weak in many ways, not able to satisfy his wife, understand his daughter and even measure up to his brother. Sure Larry is more stable, but we see anger and frustration boiling under his eyes.

Julia has become a slave to her desires. Once Frank seduces her, she is completely in his power, unable to even stand being around Larry. I wish we could have seen a bit more of Julia before Frank changes her. It would have made the evolution of her character more interesting. As the movie progresses Julia keeps inching further and further down the path of depravity.

Then there is Kirsty, the most normal of the family. She obviously doesn’t like Julia much. There are hints that Frank has done something to her in her past that was traumatic. She cares for her father, but seems to have drifted away from him, probably because of her dislike of Julia. At first she seems to be a supporting character, but begins to take a larger role as Frank and Julia’s plot is revealed and the puzzle box falls into Kirsty’s hands.

That brings us to the supernatural part of the story. So far, this is sounding a bit like an over-soapy opera. But rest assured there is plenty of gore and darkness in the film. Frank’s twisted desires lead him to find the puzzle box, a device that can open dimensional doors. In one of those worlds are creatures called the Cenobites. These beings believe in providing maximum pain to achieve ultimate pleasures. This sounds right up Frank’s alley and so he descends with them, and becomes their plaything.

At least that’s what appears to be the case. We are never given all of Franks story, or a reason for what the Cenobites want, or even a reason for why the puzzle box works the way it does. That is all for the good. The supernatural mystery is what drives the film, adding a layer of horror that is both creative and exciting. While Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his minions are the face of the film, they spend very little time in it. But what we do get to see is fairly disturbing and eerie. It’s actually a great use of a sinister force, creating enough dread in the viewers and yet not over exposing them.

The true monsters are actually the humans, Frank and Julia. This is typical of Barker’s fiction, but he makes it work so well. He loves his monsters and loves to make his humans the more horrific creatures. You can reason with the Cenobites, but not with Frank or Julia, both slaves to passions and desires that will overcome morals they may have once had.

Barker’s effects team does a stand out job in this movie. The Cenobites are wonderful creations, personifying pain in very visual ways. But more impressive to me was the work with the creature that Frank becomes. This is one gory, oozy, drippy creature, one that manages to be disturbing not just because of his physical appearance, but because of the ability for actor Oliver Smith to convey the emotions through the makeup. It’s really a wonderful creation, and sells the most unsettling scenes in the film. I also have to comment on the inter-dimensional horror, a creature so deranged looking that H.P. Lovecraft would have approved. Back in 1987 not a drop of CG was used. This is seriously an impressive bit of practical effects work.

I also want to mention the top-notch musical score by Christopher Young. The man is now one of the writers for horror movie music and Hellraiser launched that career. He saturates scenes with gothic themes, lots of orchestral color and builds suspense with great skill. He is able to match the visuals with appropriate music and actually makes the movie even more engaging. He really is one of the best at this type of music and while I enjoy his wonderful score to Drag Me To Hell a bit more than this, his work on Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II are top-notch.

I really appreciated that this movie went beyond the typical slasher conventions that had pretty much saturated the horror film scene in the ‘80s. Sure it keeps the element of the Final Girl in the form of Kirsty. But I think her bond to this family drama makes it feel less cliché than it could have been. The movie is really about adults self destructing because of their desires. These days, most horror films focus on teens and their world, so its nice to see something fantastically terrifying aimed at adults.

The movie isn’t perfect. Near the end, there are a few things that happen without any explanation that stretch willing suspension of disbelief a bit. A couple of connective scenes could have easily helped this minor issue. But I did find myself asking questions like “Wait a sec, how did she end up in that room?” and other basic questions, pulling me out of the story. This movie has a bunch of different edits and its quite possible the version I saw had a few scenes removed.

The other minor issue is the supreme ‘80s-ness of the clothing and hair. One look at the gelled hair of Frank and its kind of hard to take him seriously as a hardcore pleasure seeker. Julia’s fetish for power suits with huge shoulder pads is amazing to behold. And then there’s Kirsty’s boyfriend and his entire “look”. Wow. Yes it dates the movie almost immediately, but at the same time it adds a nostalgic charm that I appreciated. Still it’s hard to be really frightened when you are to busy chuckling at the amazing amount of florescent colors on someone’s shirt.

All in all, I really enjoyed the film. It was a nice twisted tale with plenty of gore, plenty of great music, and an entertainingly demented story. I’ve heard the series pretty much went down hill after this first film, but I have to say if you are a fan of horror film and you’ve been putting this one off, give it a shot. I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy.


  1. Kurt Vonnegut, whose books are famous for misfiring on film (only Slaughterhouse Five really came off right), advised authors either 1) to sell all of the rights, surrender all control, and hope for the best, or 2) to retain complete control over the film version. He said the "input from author" hybrid begs for a mixed vision of director and author that satisfies no one, least of all the audience. Good authors are not always good directors, so #2 isn't for everyone, but it sounds as though Barker pulled it off. As many times as I've seen this film listed on satellite, though, I've never watched it.

  2. I agree with Mr. Vonnegut. Most authors just need to accept that their stories are going to get adapted and warped. Even when a solid adaptation comes about, most authors are unsatisfied. I hear Tom Clancy hates pretty much all the film versions of his novels. I wonder what he thinks about the video games. :)

    Give this one a shot. I had a friend who was a complete gore hound who loved this movie. I'm not huge into gore, so I avoided the film. But the gore actually works with the story and the whole things is pretty solid horror/fantasy entertainment.