Movie Review: Hellraiser

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After his wild child brother disappears, a father moves his family into the brother’s creepy house and accidentally brings him back from a hell dimension.

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Clive Barker, 1987

As soon as this film starts you know you’re in for a wild ride. Frank, who is into BDSM in a big way, chases the ultimate rush by buying a puzzle box that is supposed to give you the ultimate pain/pleasure experience. Well, he gets it, and he gets torn to pieces with meat hooks at the end of it. A few years later his brother Larry moves in with his new wife Julia, stepmother to his daughter Kirsty and Frank’s former lover. She mourns him while Larry moves in and, when he tears his hand open on a nail (brutal, probably the queasiest part of the extensive gore in this movie, to me) he drips blood on the floor and brings back a monstrous, skeleton-and-blood form of Frank. Still in love with Frank, Julia goes to more and more extreme lengths to bring him back and save him from demonic hell-beings the Cenobites and their iconic leader Pinhead (who goes unnamed in this film). Kirsty starts to become suspicious of her stepmother’s behaviour and discovers a nightmare that she must then try to escape.

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This film, produced and directed by Clive Barker and adapted from his own novel, is a sadomasochistic nightmare/wet dream, depending on your proclivities. It’s a total video nasty, more shameless in its mix of sex and violence than many of its contemporaries. It’s also not particularly coherent – the puzzle box that opens the portals between worlds seems remarkably easy to figure out and can be opened by any poor bastard who comes across it, there’s a creepy tramp guy whose relevance to the film is never explained, and there’s no real reason given as to why Larry’s blood brings Frank back or how anything works. Still, the movie manages to raise some serious creeps and frights. Frank is a nasty monster, but the Cenobites are the stars – low-budget bondage freaks with disturbing face, pierced and burnt and misshapen. Their thirst for souls to bring to their special hell runs deep. The humans are less impressive – Claire Higgins shows some spirit as the cold but sensual Julia, whose passion for Frank surpasses morality and some serious body horror. The rest of the family is pretty hammy, Ashley Laurence exercising her screaming muscles and not much else as the heroic Kirsty and Andrew Robinson chewing scenery as Larry (particularly towards the end of the film).

It’s not the best horror of its era – it evokes neither the creeping fear of Halloween (does that count as the same era?) nor the mystical, nightmarish resonance of Nightmare on Elm Street – but it’s a good example of the kind of thing they were doing in the 80s. Super low budget but with some creative blood & guts, it’s somewhat dated but seems true to its vision. There’s no compromise, blood splattering the screen from the get go, actors and score and creature effects played to the hilt. Then there’s Pinhead, a brilliant execution of pure horror – it’s hard to look at that figure and not create your own nightmarish scenarios of what he could do. The movie is at its best when it’s at its maddest, exploring the hell that the Cenobites come from and their nihilistic glee, or turning a burning man into a dragon-bat type thing. Julia is a sight to behold as she carries out Frank’s mad plan, becoming absorbed in her lust for him. It’s not a great film, but it’s got enough good points to be worth a watch at this time of year.

Hellraiser on IMDb

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