Written & Directed by Clive Barker
The 1980s were a significant transformation in horror movies. In the 1970s, the horror genre often followed the trend of bleak social commentary and used genre tropes to communicate more prominent themes. Like the rest of the movies in the following decade, more emphasis was put on the spectacle. You can see this in the gratuitous kills of series like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. The Evil Dead movies of Sam Raimi also fall into this category. While cleverly written and filmed, they are more like a cinematic experience than a storytelling one. Hellraiser lies in the middle, both attempting to tell a story about some dark subject matter while delivering envelope-pushing visuals. The result is something I’m not in love with, but I can appreciate it. I also definitely understand why a film like this can be so beloved by particular groups of people.
Frank Cotton is a hedonist searching for the next intense pleasure. This leads him to a bazaar in Morocco, where he buys an ornate puzzle box from a cryptic merchant. Back home, Frank creates a space in his attic to unlock the secret of the puzzle box. He does, and the wall between our world and Hell is opened, allowing a quartet of mutilated cenobites to emerge. They take Frank with them and reset the box. Sometime later, Larry (Andrew Robinson), Frank’s brother, moves into the house with his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins). Julia had an affair with Frank behind Larry’s back and still wants him but assumes he’s dead. An accident in the attic splashes blood on the wooden floor; moments later, a skinless version of Frank emerges. He implores Julia to lure men to the house so he can sap their life energy and restore himself. A problem arises for Julia when Larry’s teenage daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), witnesses one of these kills and begins having visions that tell Kirsty her father is in danger.
I have not read a ton of Clive Barker, but what I have read I really enjoyed. I read the first two Books of Blood and Nightbreed as a teenager. I recently re-read the first Books of Blood volume after the dismal Hulu movie, and it still held up. Barker has openly admitted he lied to executives about his ability to direct this adaptation of his own work. He claims that once his meeting was over, he headed to the library and checked the only filmmaking book on the shelves. It definitely shows in specific moments with Hellraiser. It’s not a movie made by someone who deeply understands the craft. That said, Barker does have very distinct images in his mind and can produce them in admirable detail. Roger Ebert decried Hellraiser for what he saw as a lack of creativity, but I believe the opposite. Few horror movies have creatures and horrors like Hellraiser, akin to Lovecraft in its originality.
The cenobite designs are unlike anything audiences had seen at that point. Pinhead is interesting, but the others also imply complex stories. The rotund cenobite seems to hint at gluttony. The chomping cenobite’s behaviors, particularly shoving two fingers down a potential victim’s throat, have me wondering what his purpose is. These are explorers of a world bathed in blood and pain, causing us to both revile them and wonder how they came to be like this. I think this is a place where the story not explaining things works. The monsters and horrors of fiction work best when the audience is held at arm’s length. We must use our imaginations to fill in the blanks and never get the satisfaction of the picture revealing the mystery.
I think what hurts Hellraiser most is the lack of substance. Characters are introduced, and their backstories and relationships are explained, but it feels very clunky. I never felt like I understood Frank too well; I knew that he was a hedonist and into BDSM, but I don’t know much about him as a person. I don’t understand his relationship with Larry or if he’d creeped on Kirsty before this point. Who was he to his family? I know he fucked around with Julia because it was taboo, but I am curious about his past with his family. Usually, I can accept a lack of backstory, but there’s an emotional component that is teased and never explored. The way Frank licks his lips, exhibiting lust over his own niece, and her subsequent revulsion cause me to wonder if this is a side of Frank that she is familiar with.
Hellraiser’s tone defies what is expected, the audience understanding why someone like Frank would seek out forbidden things. But it doesn’t deliver this with the chaste sexual politics of more popular 80s horror franchises. Instead, Hellraiser’s underlying message seems to be one of consent. Frank gets what he gets because he opens himself up to it. In that way, the cenobites are just doing what he asked them. On the other hand, Kirsty does not want to go with them, and because she refuses to consent, they ultimately have no power to force her. It’s a much healthier message than other films where young people consensually engaging with sex is met with bloody murder.