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  • Rev Horror

Revisiting Hellraiser (Part 1)

Dir. Clive Barker (1987)

A woman tries to revive her dead lover while a puzzle box summons sex demons to Earth.


CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS


I wanted to celebrate the summer by paying homage to one of the classic franchises in horror, and what better franchise to ring in the hottest season of the year than a film series about the harbingers of Hell itself. Clive Barker, a queer icon within the horror genre, is also perhaps the most fitting creator to close out Pride Month. If you recall from our previous review of Hellraiser, I had some major issues with the narrative of the film but perhaps failed to adequately praise the film's many successes. Since I wanted to review the franchise as a whole, I figured it was high time to revisit the original film in all of its gory glory.

It's interesting that Hellraiser spawned such a large franchise of films, currently sitting at 11 (ELEVEN!!!) entries and counting. It doesn't feel like a movie that should be a franchise, at least not along the same lines as other famous movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc. Most of the other long-running franchises are standard slasher films, some better than others and all containing the same general formula of which we are all familiar by now. Hellraiser was different, a psychosexual tour de force that felt dirty by comparison, one that challenged the social mores of America and our puritanical nature while delivering an entirely different experience to its audience than they had seen outside of arthouse and foreign theaters. Sure, there were dirty horror movies in the past, but very few delivered with such elegance and cinematic value.


The beginning of the film feels like The Exorcist, a depiction of Frank Cotton's (Sean Chapman) acquisition of the Lament Configuration that takes place in some unknown (but decidedly foreign) land. It shows his attempts to open the box, surrounded by candlelight, the consequences of his actions quickly becoming clear in horrifying ways. We are introduced to the Cenobites, those grotesque and macabre representations of planes not our own that come to claim Frank's mortal body, leaving him in literal pieces on the floor and hanging from barbed hooks attached to the ceiling. It's not until later that we realize that good ole' Frank is not just some guy who likes puzzles but rather a seeker of Earthly pleasures unknown to normal men, someone who has explored every possible relief for his hunger for pleasures of the flesh and is still left wanting.

Hellraiser is, after all, a movie about sexual desire and the practically unlimited methods of attempts to satisfy those appetites. Yes, Frank is a deviant of the highest order, but it isn't long before he draws in the attention of his sister-in-law Julia (Clare Higgins). She's unhappy in her marriage, but there's nothing that can make her happy like a puddle of goo that used to be a man, as the old saying goes. It says a lot that effects guru Bob Keen appears in the opening credits immediately after the actors, and his work is displayed proudly (and frequently) as Julia attempts to resurrect her disgusting paramour. Once brand-new-Scream-Queen Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is given (and of course, solves) the Lament Configuration, the Cenobites burst back into reality and become the fearsome presence that spawned almost an even dozen sequels.


Doug Bradley's portrayal of Pinhead, the lead Cenobite, has become legendary within the horror genre. Bradley is by all accounts a wonderful human being, but he sure as hell makes a terrifying demon. Pinhead is menacing from the moment he first appears, delivering lines that have become sacrosanct in the horror canon and creating a new horror icon every bit on par with Meyers, Krueger, and Voorhees. Despite being perhaps the least scary looking Cenobite, Bradley's version of a demon, one of the most common villains in horror cinema, is both sinister and endearing, a bad guy that makes fans want to cheer while also chilling them to their core. He threatens to tear Kirsty's soul apart while also coming across as almost fair-minded, willing to make a deal with her perhaps because her accidental summoning of the 'Bites was indeed accidental. Besides, they have bigger fish to fry, and Pinhead and his Cenobite followers don't intend to let Frank beat them.

The effects are as horrifying today as they were when the film was made. The creature effects, which most will remember only from the design of the Cenobites themselves, are even more impressive as Keen creates Frank's reclamation of his physical self. The body horror that would otherwise be represented solely by the film's "monsters" is most extraordinary as Frank begins to absorb the blood and bodily fluids from those Julia lures to her bedroom. Frank's spindly limbs climbing through the floor are reminiscent of Carpenter's The Thing, the recreation of his vital organs remarkable examples of the absolute limits of puppetry and reverse photography. Fittingly, Keen utilized gallons of lube in creating the sticky monstrosity of Frank's re-composition.


The intrigue around the Hellraiser franchise, however, does not stop at the grotesque. It would be easy to dismiss the film as a gross-out splatterpunk entry of 80's horror, but it is not adequate to view the film critically without fully considering its creator, the incomparable Clive Barker. Barker was a gay man who never desired to hide his own sexuality, and while he would not publicly come out until the mid 90's, his work was filled with homosexual allegories and themes way back in the beginning with the release of his stellar Books of Blood more than a decade earlier. Hellraiser is, by the nature of the content within, decidedly queer, but it also holds within it perhaps the best and most effective use of sexuality in modern horror. Barker has never shied away from the psychosexual, delivering with Hellraiser his magnum opus in making the audience really damn uncomfortable. By refusing to pull any punches to please the Puritanical society in which the movie was released, Barker proclaims himself as the master of sexual horror.

All of that is not to say that Hellraiser is a film without flaws. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to completely convey on film what Barker is able to tell his audience through the written word. Despite Bob Keen's legendary effects work, a good bit of the film feels dated to that specific period in the 80's where animatronics ruled the day and big hairdos were the norm. Even Barker's inclusion of explicit content feels more commonplace now, tame compared to much of the arthouse films being released in the 21st century. The acting is fair to middling and some of the plot seems nonsensical at best, with certain scenes inserted simply to drive us towards the inevitable showdown between the Cenobites, Kirsty, and Frank. The sex is, at times, as much a crutch as it is important to the plot. The violence is often the same. Nevertheless, Hellraiser is disturbing as all hell and just as brutal today as its ever been. It's body horror at its best, clear evidence that Barker is just as much a master of the genre as Cronenberg, Gordon, or Yuzna. Barker's erotic masterpiece would show itself to be wildly influential on dozens of horror directors in the years to come.


For its influence alone, the OG Hellraiser is one that should not be ignored by the horror faithful. It's a classic for a reason, and it stands apart as the most unique of the famous horror franchises in both its brutality and its extremity. It also contains within itself one of the biggest examples of diminishing returns in horror, a pattern that was broken (barely) by its 2022 remake. Throughout the next couple of weeks, we're going to do a deep dive into each and every film in the storied franchise, and we're going to take Barker's lead by pulling as few punches as possible in examining this horrific (and at times horrifically bad) franchise.

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