Horror Films: ‘What’s your pleasure, sir?’ Archive Hellraiser Review

Dir. Clive Barker, 1987, UK, 93 mins, cert 18.

Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Doug Bradley, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Robert Hines.

Almost ten years after Halloween invented the modern slasher film and three after Freddy first got fingered, Clive Barker opened up a small, cubed puzzle box and unleashed a world of horror opportunities…

That box promised Frank Cotton (Chapman) pain and pleasure indivisible, but ultimately brought him eternal hell. Later, reanimated by his brother’s blood, Frank reawakens an old affair with his sister-in-law Julia (Higgins) enlisting her to murderously complete his regeneration and escape damnation. However, “slipping” Hell is never easy, especially when his niece (Laurence) puts the demonic Cenobites on his tail.

In place of the flippant ‘Pinhead’ of the franchise, here you get ‘Lead Cenobite’, one of a legion; demons to some, angels to others

By adapting his 1986 novel The Hellbound Heart for the screen, first time director Barker changed what 80s horror films could do. To discuss the Cenobites first almost does Hellraiser a disservice, but they are undoubtedly the film’s most iconic and brilliantly realized element. That the director’s deft hand keeps them to a minimum only made their over-exploitation in the film’s sequels more inevitable. Here, however, in place of the flippant ‘Pinhead’ of the franchise, you just get ‘Lead Cenobite’, one of a legion; demons to some, angels to others.

It’s no wonder that Barker’s old school friend Doug Bradley gained fame as the Lead Cenobite. His unearthly menace behind a face of pins is helped by the film’s best lines. Alongside him, ever-present, are his demonic acolytes.  The rotund Butterball, mouthy Chatterer and more vocal ‘female’.  Each carries a unique appearance, which later expansions would signify are directed by their order’s leader, The Engineer  However, the Cenobites’ appearance in the film is matched by their promise. Unlike other horror icons, they are long removed from Earth, from an amoral universe of different physical laws.  They’ve no need to be remembered on Elm Street; they simply wait for humans to be drawn inevitably to them, only becoming hunters when someone escapes them. It’s no surprise they first bridge our world in a grey hospital room and then a grey suburban house – theirs is a haze of white fades and blurs far removed from the dark of the real world.

Frank’s house itself is the large puzzle box where the mysteries unfold

Frank’s house itself is the large puzzle box where the mysteries unfold.  Barker allows us inside a few seconds before new owners Larry and Julia clumsily arrive, and then implicates us in its dark secret. Within these walls Barker unfolds a domestic tension. In fact, such is the psychological dimension of the first act, that Frank’s incredible reanimation wakes us to the potential threat and violence with a jolt. Barker constantly puts us one step ahead of the characters, but never lets too much tension build before reeling us back in with a jump. Mostly this works – particularly in a climactic game of cat and mouse – but he adds so many levels of threat that maggots bursting from the shadows can be an unwelcome intrusion.

That said, any slips in plot and pacing are held together by some fine performances in what are mostly unlikeable roles, particularly Robinson as the pathetic Larry. Unfortunately, his position as the main comic relief leads to a very forced distinction with his brother and that is Hellraiser’s main weakness. The brotherly contrast is Julia’s motivation to help Frank but – as her needs are essentially the same as those that first lead Frank to hell – the fact she is finally prompted by Larry’s snoring is quite a letdown.  Also  Frank doesn’t really seem to be that much of a catch, even when he’s ‘fleshed out’.

It’s in the distinctions between what man has and what he wants that Hellraiser really excels

While gorier than some of its contemporaries, Hellraiser outshone most with its imagination and the general quality, especially in make-up. The British and American cultures don’t clash on screen, but it’s in the distinctions between what man has and what he wants that Hellraiser really excels; as the Puzzle box seller tells Frank, “take it, it’s yours, it has always been yours.” There is no doubt this is groundbreaking horror and certainly exceeds its original working title: Sadomasochists From Beyond the Grave!

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