Published on October 13th, 2017 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A ton of missed opportunities turn Hellraiser from what could have been a visionary masterpiece into a better-than-average horror flick.
R | 93 minutes
Director & Screenplay: Clive Barker (based on his novel The Hellbound Heart)
Starring: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence
Distribution: New World Pictures (21st Century Fox)
Hellraiser is a movie of missed opportunities.
Weak-kneed ratings boards, a studio that made some terrible decisions, dull casting and a director who had virtually no clue what he was doing all combine to turn this film into a better-than-average horror flick, rather than the visionary masterpiece that it certainly could have been.
I was a great admirer of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser the first time I watched it with some friends in college. I thought its exploration of the darkness of sex and the thin line between pain and pleasure were thrilling. And I loved the Cenobites with their gothic S&M costumes, mutilated makeup effects and Pinhead’s booming voice as he said cool shit like, “WE’LL TEAR YOUR SOUL APART.”
But after rewatching it recently, I realized how boring the movie is at times and upon further reading about its production, how many chances to make it better were missed.
The movie was supposed to be set in England — the home of writer-director Clive Barker and the setting of his novel upon which it’s based — but executives at New World Pictures thought American audiences wouldn’t possibly be interested in a film set in the U.K. so they opted to make the setting so ambiguous that it essentially becomes up to the viewer to decide which country inhabited by pasty white people the action takes place. They even went so far as to re-dub the voices of some actors to give them accents that sound just bland enough to be confusing.
Seriously, the accents in this movie are terrible. I was so distracted by the way some of the characters sounded and by trying to figure out what country this was that it completely took me out of some of the exposition bits (read: scenes with no gore).
The plot of Hellraiser follows Larry and Julia Cotton (Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins), a middle-aged married couple who move into a dilapidated house that’s been in Larry’s family for years. Tensions are high in the house thanks to the nonexistent relationship between Larry’s adult daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and Julia, who is her stepmother. There’s also some romantic history between Julia and Larry’s brother Frank (Sean Chapman), a loose-cannon type who becomes the personification of the lust and darkness Julia harbors in secret from her husband.
The actual storyline is a little difficult to sum up in a few sentences but the gist is that a group of mutilated creatures from Hell called Cenobites are able to cross over to Earth thanks to an innocuous looking puzzle box that Frank picks up on a trip overseas. When he opens the box, he unwittingly unleashes the Cenobites — led by a guy with needles sticking out of his face who was the inspiration for many a nightmare after I’d visit the video store as a kid — and makes himself a sacrifice to them. After Frank’s gory death by dismemberment, he somehow reanimates inside a barren room in the house where the Cottons have moved. To regain his strength, Frank requires blood sacrifices, which Julia is compelled to provide in the form of lonely men looking for some hip and lip action.
The Cenobites are the real stars of Hellraiser, despite only appearing a few times in the film and not regularly until the latter half. Their look is so signature that it has become the iconography by which the entire movie franchise is identified. These paper-white creatures, clad in black leather with accents of steel built into their skin. When they find out Frank has somehow escaped his ultimate fate, they aren’t happy.
Hellraiser is loaded with imagery inspired by BDSM culture, from the harsh leather clothing of the Cenobites, to their painful metal adornments, to the chained hooks that sink into their victims’ flesh, suspending them from the ground like submissives caught between ultimate pleasure and death. It’s obvious that Barker has a fascination with the relationship between pain and ecstasy. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) himself comments on this idea when he describes his band of killers as “Demons to some. Angels to others.”
Some love suffering, others loathe it. Either way, the Cenobites exist as both the source and relief of your suffering.
And if you think the name Pinhead is really stupid for a menacing villain, don’t fret because nobody actually ever calls him that in the movie. He’s credited as “Lead Cenobite” and the name Pinhead has simply become shorthand to describe the character. Bradley does a fantastic job making this character more than just the sum of his creepy looks. His deep voice paired with the relatively few short, authoritative pieces of dialogue he’s given make Pinhead pretty much the ultimate dom. He tells you how it’s about to go down before it does, and he doesn’t appreciate crying, as he tells Kirsty, “No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”
The human characters are so unremarkable that it really hurts Hellraiser’s replay value. Before I sat down to watch it with my wife for her first time, she asked me who was in it and I had to think about it before realizing I had no answer for her. Despite telling her I considered Hellraiser among my favorite horror movies, I realized I couldn’t recall a single member of the cast. Shortly after rewatching it again, I still struggled to remember anyone’s names.
Andrew Robinson is pretty much instantly forgettable as Larry, a yuppie square dad with no memorable characteristics other than the remarkable thickness of his blood after he cuts his hand while moving furniture up the stairs. Same for Sean Chapman as Frank, who doesn’t bring much to the table aside from good looks. Twenty-year-old Ashley Laurence as Kirsty is also easily forgotten. Like all young scream queens of horror, Laurence has an attraction that is mostly fresh faced, as well as a very solid high-pitched wail — but those are par for the course in these movies.
Aside from the aforementioned Bradley, Clare Higgins gives the film’s most memorable performance as the steely Julia. Higgins is a theater veteran, which explains her tendency to overact throughout the film. It’s either zero or 100 with Julia. Most of the time she’s demure with perfectly coiffed hair and blouses buttoned up to the throat, but when we see her let loose either, she goes full tilt. This is a woman who becomes driven by her desires to the point of madness. Her character is given more to do than any others and it’s fun to watch Higgins obviously enjoy playing this part. I couldn’t help but think of Scarlett Johansson’s character in the far-superior 2013 movie “Under the Skin” as I watched Julia lure horny men to their fates.
The limp casting is another of Hellraiser’s fundamental flaws but perhaps not its deepest.
As a filmmaker, Barker had no experience whatsoever before being handed the reins to adapt his own novel. He’s apparently said in subsequent interviews that he knew so little about filmmaking that if someone had given him a plate of spaghetti and told him it was a lens, he would’ve believed them.
A rookie’s raw touch can be a major blessing for some movies but in the case of Hellraiser, Barker’s lack of experience in the director’s chair shows. The lifeless performances could have been boosted by a more authoritative director and the by-the-books staging of many scenes that don’t involve special effects also make it look like he was just happy to get them over with and into the can. With that said, Barker and his editors Richard Marden and Tony Randel take some interesting chances with short takes and swift cutaways during some of the most tense sequences.
With all that said, I credit the studio for giving Barker the freedom to adapt and direct his own book just a year after Stephen King tried the same thing with Maximum Overdrive, which turned out to be a major flop with audiences and critics. Barker handles his debut much better than King — his source material is better also — but I think a seasoned director could’ve made real magic with his script.
One of Barker’s best ideas that ended up being rejected by the studio was hiring electronic-industrial music pioneers Coil to write the score for Hellraiser. These days, hiring synth-happy alt music producers to score a movie is so commonplace that even Ken Burns reached out to Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails to do the music for his Vietnam War documentary for PBS. But in 1987, the folks at New World Pictures demanded a soundtrack that was more “commercial,” so they opted to go with composer Christopher Young, who’d scored several horror films including 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
The result was a score that sounds like boilerplate horror fare. Young’s score is certainly not bad but it’s not memorable either. The thought of the imagery from this film being pared with Coil songs like “Blood from the Air” or “The First Five Minutes After Death” sounds incredible but, alas, the studio was only willing to take so many risks.
Hellraiser was further neutered by ratings boards including the MPAA, which demanded some extra shots of sex, murder, dismemberment and male nudity be axed to avoid an X rating. Barker’s also quoted as saying the MPAA told him he could only show two consecutive pelvic thrusts during a sex scene involving Frank and Julia. Because three was just apparently too much for American eyes.
As of writing this review, I’ve yet to see any of Hellraiser’s sequels (there have been eight so far, with a ninth coming this year) but I remain a fan of the original. Even with the many flaws I’ve pointed out, I still consider Hellraiser to be one of the most original and evocative horror movies of the genre’s 1980s heyday. It’s daring, heavy and serious in tone, which was something sadly missing from most horror of the decade after Freddy Kreuger proved audiences enjoyed some laughs with their mass murders.
As it stands, Hellraiser is no joke. But it could have been one of the all-time greats.
*Still shots courtesy: FilmGrab
Watch the trailer for Hellraiser below