Reviewed by Liam Griffiths
Released: September 11th 1987 (UK)
Directed by: Clive Barker
Starring: Shaun Chapman, Andrew Robinson
Certificate: 18 (UK)
Both disturbing and fascinating in equal measure, Hellraiser marked writer-director Clive Barker’s first theatrical outing, and quickly became a cult smash amongst conneussirs of more extreme cinema.Barker’s unabashed love of all things depraved, masochistic and violent set a genuinely shocking precedent upon it’s release, featuring the kind of extreme imagery that would make Jack The Ripper ill. Dealing with themes of adultery, sexual deviance and – of course – demonism throughout it’s run-time,Hellraiser follows the story of Frank Cotton, a sex-crazed explorer (played with relish by Sean Chapman) who purchases a curious puzzle box known as The Lament Configuration from a peculiar old man in some far-away country.
As my old Gran used to say, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ – and unfortunately for Frank, solving the box’s mechanism exposes the owner to a world filled with torment and agony, and no less than four minutes into the film Frank has been torn asunder by a group of Hellish S&M perverts known as Cenobites.
Enter Frank’s estranged brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and adulterous wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who move into the home and spark a chain of events that sees Frank raised from the dead by the accidental spilling of Larry’s blood. Julia, being one of Frank’s former lovers, is convinced to help Frank regain his desecrated body by luring a series of hopelessly horny men to their death, allowing Frank to absorb their blood and edge closer to his full humanity. Eventually, it falls to Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) to save the day, which she achieves mostly by falling over a lot, aimlessly fiddling with the Lament Configuration and screaming obnoxiously at other characters.
To quote Clive Barker himself, “A story is only as good as it’s villain”, and in Hellraiser’s case that couldn’t be more accurate. While Frank is a despicable, bullish man, he hasn’t got a patch on the horribly disfigured Cenobites. Clad in shiny black leather, they embody raw masochism, believing that pain and pleasure are basically indivisible from one another. Using various chains and hooks to snare their victims and tear them apart, the Cenobites are a foreboding, ominous background presence more than anything else.
Little did Barker know at the time, but he helped British actor Doug Bradley craft a superb performance as the brooding, merciless ‘Lead Cenobite’ – or ‘Pinhead’, as he became known by fans. To this day Pinhead is a household name amongst horror fanatics, and Hellraiser marks his first ever appearance as the chilling, ruthless monster we now know and love.
Barker’s cinematography is also genuinely absorbing, achieving an almost overwhelming crescendo of foreboding and dread by the third act – when quite literally all hell breaks loose. Performances are solid at best, passable at worst, with some of Robinson’s lines feeling stiff and a little out of place. Laurence does an acceptable job as Kirsty considering the time of Hellraiser’s release (when strong female characters were pretty few and far between, actresses were often employed for their aptitude at screaming – hence the term, ‘Scream Queens’) although in this modern day and age it can be a little frustrating to watch.
Visually, the atmosphere is stunning. Some of the more gruesome scenes still look genuinely impressive considering the budgetary and technological constraints of the production, although some of the late-film puppetry (which I’m sure was impressive back in 1987) just looks plain silly nowadays. However, Hellraiserwon’t let you down if you’re a gore-hound in it for the body count, and neither will it disappoint those who seek masterful camerawork, since Barker is a naturally gifted director as well as creative storyteller.
Whether it’s through the various instances of betrayal throughout the film, or through the overtly twisted and sometimes biblical imagery (especially the massively affecting ‘Jesus wept..’ sequence towards the end of the film), Hellraiser is a constant assault on your sense of decency. If you’re a fan of slightly twisted, hugely creative horror, then I suggest you seek out this genuine masterpiece – just don’t watch it with your mum, okay?