The 80’s were an insanely fertile time for the horror genre where genuinely imaginative and freakish classics were seemingly sprouting up everywhere. 1981 alone gave us not one but two world class werewolf movies, auteurs like Carpenter, Craven and Cronenberg were turning out career best work and the slasher movie was in full swing – simply put, it was an exhilarating time to be a fan, but despite all the fantastical gore and impressive lacks of restraint on show (Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon and Frank Henenlotter – I’m looking at you here) there was nothing – but nothing – quite like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
Sick of seeing such rubbery, dumbed-down attempts at his writings like the shlocky Rawhead Rex, Barker himself rolled up his sleeves and planted himself behind the camera in an effort to prove the old adage: you you want someone flayed right, flay ’em yourself.
Strained couple Larry and Julia Cotton move into an old family property fully expecting to run into the former’s ne’er do well, thrill seeking brother, Frank. They certainly find proof that he was once staying there, but knowing how notoriously flaky his brother was, Larry pays it no mind, starts refurbishing the place and prepares to welcome his daughter from his first marriage, Kirsty.
However, there’s a few things Larry doesn’t know, chiefly that a younger Julia was one of Frank’s earlier conquests (the two made the beast with two backs shortly before the wedding) and that her pining for him has started to affect her libido concerning her husband.
So far, so soap opera – but the real kicker is that Frank (or at least what’s left of him) is still located under the floorboards after his obsessive search for the ultimate knee trembler led him to buy a mysterious puzzle box in Morocco that once solved, unleashes the Cenobites, group of mutilated sadists from hell. However, being turned into a crimson smear on the floorboards by a bunch of interdimentional dommes turns out to be oddly temporary when an accident leads to Larry spilling his blood on the same spot which allows the skinless husk of Frank to be resurrected in the spare room. Pleading with a shocked Julia to help him, in order to rekindle their affair, she agrees and heads out to various bars dressed in Annie Lennox’s hand-me-downs equipped with shoulder pads that could choke a whale in order to pull various balding businessmen to feed to her drippy beau.
Frank’s master plan is for Julia to build him up to full strength and then make a run for it in case the Cenobites figure out he’s found a back door out of hell, but a major speed bump turns out to be Kirsty, stumbles onto the violently sordid affair and makes off with the puzzle box without having the first clue as to how lethal it truly is. Whatever happens, all hell is about to break loose…
Essentially a Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama detailing a crumbling marriage where the spark is long gone, Barker’s original novella, The Hellbound Heart, adds self mutilation, hammer murders and a shit load of skin flaying meat hooks to create a black-as-tar middle class fairy tale with a horrific twist.
I personally rate it as one of the greatest horror movies ever made in England and while it’s acts of shocking gore are magnificent value for money, it’s always been Barker’s talent to merge the mundane with the fantastic, but it finally reaches it’s most visceral potential in the author’s best movie.
Those unfamiliar with the film may actually be surprised that the iconic, nail studded visage of the lead Cenobite (later dubbed “Pinhead”) has little to do with the actual story, waiting in the wings to be unleashed at opportune moments – but it’s the murderous relationship between Frank and Julia that’s the true meat of the film.
Claire Higgins seamlessly goes from bored housewife to calculating murderer as if born to it – not easy when your romantic partner has less skin than a peeled orange – and Andrew Robinson (best known as Scorpio from Dirty Harry) somehow manages to score the only normal role in a movie crammed with wall crawling monsters and chattering demons and yet still stands out. However, kudos also have to go to the hero of the piece and Ashley Laurence’s gutsy and appealing Kirsty is an 80’s horror heroine who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Nancy from Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween’s Laurie Strode.
Frank, portrayed by various actors depending on whatever ravaged state he’s currently in at the time, is a delicious shifty villain, utterly led by his perversions and willing to sacrifice anything to get what he wants whether it’s a brand new coating of skin or yet another opportunity to enforce his will on the opposite sex, he’s gloriously easy to loathe. He also gets quite the awesome re-entrance in the movie and it’s here we shift our focus to Hellraisers copious and very, very visceral horror stuff. Frank painstakingly reforms himself from a puddle of goo while the score impressively builds to a crescendo (subsequently stolen by the birth of the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 – it even shares the same composer), the features of a screaming victim is stretched taunt by hooked chains before he tears under the strain, it’s all vehemently violent stuff, as strikingly brutal as the basic plot is subdued, but it all pales in comparison to Hellraiser’s true breakout stars. Striding into frame with virtually no explanation whatsoever and effortlessly stealing the movie are the leather-clad quartet known as the Cenobites, a group whose very bodies are a billboard for the pain they inflict and who predicted certain aspects of body modification seen in today’s alternative cultures. Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, a regal, pope-like public speaker is an aching cool creature with all the best lines and his companions – the bald, open-throated Female; the gluttonous, shades wearing Butterball and, best of all, the clicking teeth of the otherwise faceless Chatterer – all instantly were destined to take their rightful place in the pantheon of great horror villains.
It’s almost perfect. Almost. However, due to its meagre budget the occasional rubbery creature or iffy visual effect gets through and the movie is victim to some stunningly bad dubbing in order to make the painfully obvious English backdrop seem more American for foreign audiences – as a result the film seems trapped in some sort of cultural limbo and while it sort of adds to the twisted fairy tale nature of the piece, it’s often a little distracting.
That cosmetic wrinkle aside, Barker shows remarkable maturity with his directorial debut, have the confidence in his story to tell a story about struggling adults in a decade rife with carefree teens and to give horror audiences something a little more challenging alongside the monsters and chain-ripped gore.
Consider my soul dutifully torn apart, as promised…