STARRING: Doug Bradley, Sean Chapman, Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence
DIRECTED BY: Clive Barker
WRITTEN BY: Clive Barker
Clive Barker is a British novelist who had previous bad experiences of his writing being adapted to film. So much so that the 1987 adaptation of his novella The Hellbound Heart turned out to be his directorial debut. Hellraiser was made in England for the relatively small budget of $1 million. Despite no previous experience as a film director, and the low budget, Barker was able to deliver Hellraiser as a phenomenal success, and one of the stand out horror films of all time.
Hellraiser follows the Cotton family, beginning with Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) tracking down the mysterious Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that is supposed to grant pleasures unknown to those who solve it. When Frank solves the puzzle hooked chains emerge from inside and tear him apart. Later, when Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), and Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), move into the old family home in England, the spirit of Frank is awoken when Larry cuts himself, leading to a drop of his blood falling on a piece of Franks remains beneath the floorboards. Frank returns to the world of the living as a ghastly creature, devoid of flesh, who enlists the help of his former lover and sister-in-law Julia to return him fully, having her lure victims up to the attic so that he can kill them and drain their body of what he needs.
Meanwhile, a group of interdimensional creatures known as the Cenobites, monsters that mix pleasure and pain, “angels to some, demons to others”, are searching for Frank, who has escaped their confines within the Lament Configuration. Drawn into the horrors that unfold, Kirsty must fight for her life against her undead uncle, and the demonic Cenobites.
Hellraiser isn’t a long film; its run time is barely over 90 minutes. However, it’s a film that understands that horror isn’t something that can be just thrown into people’s faces. It needs to build over time, slowly unfolding as tension builds. Because of this, the film feels like it’s a lot longer than its short run time, though in a good way. It gives the audience a chance to get to know Frank, Julia and Kirsty by creating its own world within the confines of the Cotton family home, before the introduction of the monsters from another world.
Hellraiser deals with a number of themes, none more obvious than the idea of pleasure and pain being linked, with clear allusions to the S&M community reflected in the black leather and PVC costumes of the Cenobites. Whilst this may be the most obvious of the film’s themes, and can be disturbing to many people as the line between sexual pleasure and torture blurs, the film also deals with obsession, infidelity, betrayal, and even incest.
It makes sure that even before the Cenobites arrive – even before Frank returns as a rotting corpse – the film feels slightly wrong. We see through flashbacks that Julia was unfaithful to Larry, that Kirsty and Julia don’t get along, and that the family isn’t in the best place in their lives. As such, audiences aren’t given time to feel comfortable before the horror begins; this isn’t a happy family that gets dragged into horror, but a family with some very rotten apples within it.
The human cast may not be the best actors as the producers were unable to afford A-list stars, but they manage to do a good job with the roles that they are given. Clare Higgins immediately stands out as the thoroughly unlikeable Julia, a character that audiences loved to hate so much that she returned for the first sequel of the franchise. The most iconic cast member, though many people wouldn’t be able to recognise him out of costume, is Doug Bradley as Pinhead, the leader of the Cenobites. Despite having less than 10 minutes of screen time, Pinhead would go on to become one of the most iconic horror movie monsters of all time.
Though a little rough around the edges, you can see the lack of budget and the lack of directorial experience from Barker, but despite this he works wonders. It uses practical effects that still look disturbing today, makes use of a confined set to build tension, and has some small touches in scenes that once you notice them make things even better than you first thought.
Inspiring a generation of horror fans, filmmakers, eight sequels, and multiple comic series, Hellraiser remains one of the most iconic and interesting genre films of all time. If you’ve never seen it before, make good use of the re-release and book tickets for an experience you’ll not soon forget.
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