HELLRAISER

If there is one film that epitomises the ‘perfect’ horror film (for me, that is), then that film is 1987’s Hellraiser. It’s sleazy, it’s extreme in terms of the themes it explores and it positively seethes a hellish, nightmarish atmosphere. Additionally (and most memorably), it gave us probably THE most iconic ‘monster’ of the demonic variety in late 20th century horror cinema in the form of Pinhead. (Yes, I know there’s also Freddy and Jason, both demons in their own right, but in some sense they’re much more recognisably human than Pinhead or his fellow Cenobites).

Its a marvel of effective low-budget film-making at its best. It’s extremely claustrophobic: the close, dark sets and stifling family relationships continually make the viewer gasp for air. And to think it all started with a novella written by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart, originally published in the third volume of the Night Visions anthology, published by Dark Harvest in November 1986.

It’s a film that has so many layers to it: the idea that ultimate pleasure can be associated with ultimate pain is transgressive in the extreme, and yet there is an undeniable truth within its dark heart. It has a small cast of characters, around which everything orbits tightly. As it had a miniscule budget, it wasn’t about the effects or the Cenobites, but about the characters and their interactions. Yes, it starts with Frank (Sean Chapman), a man who is something of a hedonist, finding a fabled puzzle-box (The Lament Configuration) that, according to legend and rumour, if solved, will lead to ultimate pleasure. Of course, it’s nothing more than a key, a key that unlocks the dimensional doors to the realm of the Cenobites. Frank is dragged off, to experience unutterable hells of torture and pain.

However, ultimately, it’s about the hells we make for ourselves. The box does indeed open up gates to unknown pleasures, but they are only pleasures as the Cenobites understand the term. To them pain IS pleasure. Frank is inadvertently resurrected, having found a way to escape the confines of Hell, and in the process dragging Julia (Clare Higgins), who once had a fling with him and is now married to his brother Larry (Andrew Chapman), into the dark corridors of madness by persuading her to provide the means by which to bring him back fully.

It is here, of course, that matters spiral out of control – Kirsty (Julia and Larry’s daughter), discovers what’s going on and also figures out that the Lament Configuration is the key to everything. She eventually meets Pinhead and co. after solving the puzzle-box whilst recovering in hospital. Necessarily they want to drag her back with them, but she tells them about Frank’s escape and makes a bargain with them: she’ll give them Frank in return for her freedom.

The film leaves you wondering just who the real monsters are here – the Cenobites or the humans. Pinhead has no illusions about his role, but Frank’s reappearance brings destruction in his wake, destroying not just Julia and Kirtsy’s lives but also those of the lonely men she brings back home so Frank can feed. Frank doesn’t even care when he inadvertently stabs Julia, the woman who aided him in his quest and who once loved him, while going for her daughter. Julia has created her own hell when Frank reappeared by agreeing to nourish him, Kirsty brought about her own nightmare when she solved the puzzle box. And, of course, Frank assured his own place in the darkest circle of the netherworld when his pursuit of that ultimate high led him to acquiring, and solving, the Configuration box in the first place.

The other subtext running underneath is that everything has a consequence, that in the pursuit of pleasure, pain is inevitably a constant bedfellow. That hate is a partner to love. That to know the ultimate highs one has to have experienced the ultimate lows. There is something ultimately bleak and hopeless about the film, too – there is very little of light anywhere in it. Even when everything has been resolved, we come away with the notion that there is still taint. That lives cannot return to any form of normality. There’s the constant awareness that this life is but one dimension of many, and that the wall is perilously thin between this one and that of unspeakable torment and horror. That thin wall also denotes that the differences between here and there aren’t that great. Look at the torture and horror we’ve been inflicting on fellow humans over the millennia. Like I intimated, who are the real monsters here?

The film has spawned more than a few sequels, which have mostly diluted the original intent and atmosphere, although I will say I have a slight soft spot for the fourth film in the franchise, Hellraiser: Bloodline. Two and three weren’t that bad either. However, it’s that very first outing for Pinhead and cronies that will always hold a special place for me – one of those films I always revisit when I get the chance.

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8 Responses to “HELLRAISER”

  1. Neil Williams Says:

    Haven’t seen Hellraiser in over twenty years. Not sure why I never returned to it as I did like it. Along with Richard Stanley’s Hardware there was something of the ‘shock of the new’ about it. A shame Barker was never able to capitalise on it. The first sequel was rather problematic the sudden completely unjustified (and unexplained) shift from London in the first film to North America completely ruined it for me. The third one was rather good fun albeit lacking that uncompromising abrasiveness of the original.

  2. simonkurtunsworth Says:

    I was about 16 and snuck into the cinema to see Hellraiser. I love its bleakness, and the random american accents and basball caps.

    Good blog, sir!

  3. Yes, this movie really did put Britain back on the map when it came to horror. I can remember seeing Hellraiser at a preview showing (I think it was at the Scala) and at the time Barker was still hanging out a lot with the British Fantasy Society crowd, so I nabbed a quad and got him to sign it for me (also have a USA one sheet signed too!)

    Great comeback by one of the best actors to play a psychotic in the form of Andrew Robinson (seen to wonderful effect in Dirty Harry) and as you say fabulous sets, sfx, and good performances from the cast.

    Also like the gothic touch to the movie with the clothes, eerie house, and props. Amazingly, the film hasn’t really dated in it look – which begs the question why yet another remake in 2011?

  4. Simon – Great post. I came to ‘Hellraiser’ rather late—probably less than five years ago, on TV late one night (the perfect time for it).

    What blew me away about the film was not Pinhead or the Cenobites (although they are, as everyone says, wonderfully creepy and iconic)—it was the human story of the woman who would do anything to bring her lover back for one more taste of the pleasure she’d known with him. The combination of lust and lying and guilt and longing and crossing unthinkable lines is almost perfectly balanced with the scenes of Frank’s gory and gradual re-constitution.

    I know this may be heresy among longtime ‘Hellraiser’ fans, but I was so taken by the story of Frank and Julia and their horrible, passionate pact that I found the appearance of Pinhead and the Cenobites a little distracting, almost as though they came from another film.

    Still, I agree—a near-perfect horror film because of its terrible humanity.

    • I agree that Julia’s willingness to forego her basic humanity for a selfish reason constitutes the hinge on which the story swings, so to speak, and that in many ways the Cenobites are secondary in that they are personifications of the human propensity for atrocity and violence. I’m guessing that by introducing them as hellish demons, rather than playing off a human conception, is to emphasise that we all, in effect, create our own demons and that the concepts of good and evil are from within us, not from without. We visualise them as horrobl;e, nasty demonic creatures because then it’s easier to digest than if we were to face the fact that it’s US who are the real monsters.

      Just my reading of this… 🙂

      • I agree, Simon, that the Cenobites, like all demons, are personifications of human impulses and propensities—in this case, Julia’s. And Frank’s, of course. That’s why the scenes later in the film where the young actress—sorry, I forget the character’s name–is being threatened by the Cenobites just doesn’t resonate as much, because her character has no real connection to them.

        Funny—my 10 year old daughter asked me last week if demons are real (I think she’d been watching the TV trailer for ‘The Last Exorcism’), and I started to go into a long explanation about demons being manifestations of painful and violent human inner-states, but in the end, I just said, “No.”

        It made me think of something I believe the Dalai Lama said, that just because something is all in your mind “doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

  5. Oh my God…it wasn’t the Dalai Lama—I think it was actually Dumbledore (!!!)

    I’m going to have myself committed now… ; )

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