*. I saw this movie when it was first released in theatres and came away very impressed. I felt like I had seen nothing like it.
*. You have to remember the times: in the early ’80s horror films had devolved into endless repetitions of the same old slasher clichés and formulas. The genre was in a desperate rut. There was no originality, no invention. Hellraiser was different. And not just because it was British (though that probably helped).
*. There’s an interesting comment made on the Hellraiser: Resurrection featurette where author Bill Condon calls this film one of the two landmark horror movies of the 1980s, along with Nightmare on Elm Street. But Nightmare on Elm Street has always struck me as a parody of conventional elements that Wes Craven was already bored with, inspiring a dive into the surreal. Hellraiser was going in a different direction.
*. It’s all the more surprising then that this is a film that was not that well received at the time. Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prominent nay-sayer, but critical aggregate scores were not good and the box office ($14 million, on a $1 million budget) wasn’t outstanding. Still, voices such as Stephen King and Kim Newman both saw in it “the future of horror,” and this seemed to me to be a good call.
*. But Barker’s promise, which really was immense, fizzled. It’s amazing that this was his first movie, and that just before shooting started he’d gone to the library to find a book on directing. He’s said that at the time he might not have known the difference between a lens and a plate of spaghetti (which was, no doubt, an exaggeration).
*. Now this movie is not the Citizen Kane of horror debuts, but it is very effective. Barker had a unique vision and a solid script, and was given enough independence to develop them (something he insisted on after being upset at the “cinematic abominations” made of a couple of previous screenplays he’d written, for Underworld and Rawhead Rex).
*. But where did he go from here? Next up there was Nightbreed, which I remember as being awful. He wrote a lot more, but nothing that I think measures up to his Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart, the latter being the novella Hellraiser is based on. So he didn’t disappear, but still “the future of horror” title never panned out. I wonder if this was another version of the catastrophe of success.
*. As for the film, it would go on to have a long legacy, with a plethora of sequels that rolled downhill followed by the obligatory franchise reboot. But more on them later, if I ever get around to watching them all.
*. To get back to where I started: in 1987 this movie really was the thing. But I’m impressed seeing it today at how well it’s held up. Yes, it’s still the ’80s, but while the hair is big it isn’t disturbingly so. And yes the puzzle box (“Lemarchand’s Configuration,” for those in the know) is just a fancy Rubik’s Cube. Even at the time I thought the Ghostbusters reject of a demon (apparently called “the Engineer”) was laughable, and the dolly behind it clearly visible. The final animations are lousy, and apparently Barker drew them by hand, while drunk, because there was no money (but then why not just do something simpler?). Grant all of this, but it’s still a darn good movie.
*. I mentioned how being British might have helped it seem even more different. As Kim Newman points out, it was something really new in the U.K.: “In the mid-1980s British horror only existed as an underground tradition. Between Bromley Davenport’s Xtro (1982) and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), no British horror film was given a theatrical release.” That gives you another idea of the wasteland out of which this movie arose.
*. Still, as Newman also says, “If there is such a thing as a British horror film for the 1980s, Hellraiser is it.” This despite the fact that the location (London) is never specified and the American production company insisted on some of the actors’ voices being dubbed.
*. Given that the author of the original story was also the screenwriter and director, it’s surprising how many significant changes were made. Chief among these is making Kirsty into Larry’s daughter from a previous marriage instead of a former suitor the same age as Julia. This change makes sense though because it turns our lead into a threatened teenager and also brings in a kinky incest angle.
*. A more mysterious change is adding the bearded homeless man who turns into a winged demon at the end. There’s nothing in the novella like that and I’m not sure the character was necessary here. He seems just a distraction. I think he should have been the Engineer, a figure who is articulate and even somewhat dignified in the novella but appears to be little more than an angry slug in the movie.
*. Since this movie is a personal favourite of mine I don’t want to spend too long on nit-picking at some details, but here’s a quick list. I’m bothered that Frank and Larry don’t seem like brothers. I’m bothered that Larry and Julia don’t seem remotely compatible. I’m bothered at how much of Frank is reconstituted with just a few drops of blood, but there’s hardly any change at all between his second and third victims (and killing Julia doesn’t even heal the cuts on his face). I’m bothered that the recomposing Frank and flashback Frank are played by different actors and I can’t see the former in the latter at all.
*. Also: why does Pinhead follow up his line “This isn’t for your eyes!” with “We have such sights to show you!” He seems to have changed his mind.
*. Barker wanted Kirsty’s dream sequence to be “a moment of pure Argento surrealism,” but why? It’s a sequence I’ve never understood. I’m not even sure who is underneath the blanket. It’s not her father. The boyfriend? And why is it that he wakes up in a sweat?
*. I think the film might have been clearer about such things. Another point I’ll mention is that I never thought, the first few times I saw the movie, that Frank was dying in the house. I thought he’d just flopped there for a while before taking off for Asia or North Africa, buying the box, and then opening it in some seedy opium den or something. It really wasn’t until I read The Hellbound Heart that I realized that all that early stuff had actually taken place in the same house on Ludovico Street (get it?) and that Frank was bound to it in some physical sense.
*. Well, it was a somewhat messy production, shot on the cheap and with a lot of loose ends. But now on to a quick catalogue of what I love about it.
*. In the first place, while kinky it also has an adult attitude toward sex. This isn’t a movie about a bunch of teenagers screwing and then getting killed by a puritanical or voyeuristic slasher. In fact, Kirsty and her boyfriend even sleep in the same room but in separate beds!
*. Instead, the sexual heat is brought by Clare Higgens, who was only 32 but looks slightly older: very much the mature, professional lady with her perfect hair and makeup and nails. This, in turn, makes her turn to depravity all the more compelling. She’s the MILF from hell. Or, to take Barker’s analogy, she and Frank are the Macbeths.
*. The design elements, especially with the Cenobites, are terrific, as are most of the special effects. I’ve already flagged the weak links (the animation at the end and the appearance of the Engineer), but otherwise they got a lot of bang for their buck. The gore holds up really well, especially with that shocking opening sequence. Frank’s jigsaw-puzzle of a face is still disturbing over thirty years later.
*. Barker wanted to start off with something shocking as a way of “taming the audience”: letting the audience know right away that nothing is off the table and keeping them off balance for the rest of the movie. It’s also important to start off with this because the Cenobites don’t actually show up for a while. Barker references Jaws on the DVD commentary as an example of this kind of opening, but it’s a fairly standard part of any horror artist’s toolkit.
*. Sticking with the icky stuff for just a moment I’d also praise the sound effects used for Frank’s feeding. It shoulds like he’s munching and slurping on take-out, which in a way I guess he is. Barker can cut away from such scenes and just show Julia listening in the hallway and it doesn’t lose any of its impact.
*. Then, of course, there are the Cenobites. Barker was afraid that audiences would find Pinhead in particular ridiculous. I think the context of his initial appearance helps here, as it did the first appearance of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes. They might have seemed funny too, just guys dressed up in gorilla suits, but because they’re so terrifying hunting the humans down we aren’t allowed to laugh.
*. By now the whole Cenobite gang (or the Order of the Gash, to use the novella’s crude double entendre) have become not just familiar but iconic. And again I have to stress how strange they were in 1987. Sure there was a leather scene in the ’80s, but piercing wasn’t mainstream at all. These guys were something different.
*. Like all iconic villains, Pinhead gains from the fact that less is more. I’ve talked before about how we remember a lot of great movie villains just for a couple of lines or perhaps even a quirky physical characteristic and that’s it. Fans of this film can, and do, quote Pinhead’s lines because there are so few of them. Which, in turn, magnifies them in our memories.
* Barker nixed the contemporary metal score to go with something more conventional. I like Christopher Young’s score here as it fits a cozy setting that has gone to seed, setting the tone with a campy edge.
*. The cast are all very good. Andrew Robinson, the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry, stays just this side of overplaying his double role. He’s at his best in that final shot where he’s being hung up on all the hooks and chains and we see what’s more than just a shadow of a smile on his face. At least in some sense, isn’t this what he signed up for? And now he gets to go through it all again. Clare Higgens I’ve mentioned as the icy queen with lava in her veins. And Ashley Laurence in her debut has a really strong turn as Kirsty. Her boyfriend, a character not in the novella, is, as Barker points out on the commentary track, “completely useless throughout the entire movie.” I love the bit of business where he tries to grab the box from her and take charge of the situation at the end but she slaps his hand away. This is serious business! Just let her get on with it.
*. In fact, we might extend that inversion of traditional gender roles to Larry and Julia as well. What gets the ball rolling here is his running to her when he cuts his hand on the nail, instead of going to wash it up in the sink or something useful. And of course Frank has to get Julia to bring home all his victims, and kill them for him as well. It’s the women in this movie who get things done. Meanwhile I’m still wondering why the hell it would take three guys to carry a mattress up a flight of stairs. (One of them is Oliver Parker, who would be back moving the same mattress in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, only this time with even worse results.)
*. I guess I could go on but there doesn’t seem much point adding more words to a movie that has had more than enough said about it already. In the featurette included with the DVD Barker mentions his being exhausted by talking about the film, and that anything he has to say is pretty much by the way now anyway since it’s a movie that belongs to its fans. Certainly the basic mythology and the character of Pinhead would proceed to take on a life of their own. I’m not sure at this point how many Hellraiser movies there have been, but it’s a lot and they’re still going.
*. Personally, I don’t quite rank this as one of my personal favourites of all time but it is a movie that, for various reasons, I have near the top of such lists. It’s interesting that despite all the sequels and the reboots it still stands pretty much alone. There was nothing quite like it when it came out and as far as I know there hasn’t been anything quite like it since. It has its flaws, some of which you’d expect given the budget. And yet through the right alignment of talent, the moment, and a bit of luck it all still works. After thirty years I think we have to admit that it’s gone beyond cult status and can be considered a classic.