I had a difficult time figuring out what should be the next horror-ific film to watch for Halloween. Truth is, I’d lined up yet another horror comedy and after fifteen minutes of watching one of the stars continually look off-camera for lines or thumbs of encouragement from the crew or what the hell ever, I decided maybe it was time I take the holiday serious. Hellraiser seemed like it would fit the bill quite nicely.
At the exotic reaches of the world, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) purchases a golden puzzle box. He returns to his childhood home and sets about solving the puzzle box by candlelight in the barren attic. The solution rips Frank to shreds and a figure in black leather robes resets the box, and the room (but not Frank), to its earlier state. Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) drags his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) out of Brooklyn and into his childhood home as part of an attempt to mend their failing marriage. It’s obvious Frank squatted there, but he’s long gone, that is until a few drops of Larry’s blood return Frank to some modicum of existence. Memories of their torrid affair and Frank’s shriveled but still smooth tongue convinces Julia to help restore him. However, Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) stops by to see how Julia’s adjusting from the move only to discover how maladjusted she is.
As is often heard in the horror field, Hellraiser is spawned “from the mind of Clive Barker.” The first feature written and directed by Barker, it is based on his novella The Hellbound Heart. The studio made him change the title since it sounded like too much of a romance, and in some twisted ways, it kind of is. He offered up Sadomasochists From the Grave, but my favorite alternate title was reportedly from a sixty-year-old crew woman who suggested What a Woman Will Do For a Good Fuck. Any of those three titles sum up the story far better than Hellraiser.
The sadomasochists Barker referred to are the Cenobites. Demons to some, angels to others; they are explorers in the further regions of experience or so sayeth the lead Cenobite (Doug Bradley). Bradley’s imposing Cenobite would eventually com to be affectionately known by fans as Pinhead thanks to the symmetrical nails driven into his face and skull. Barker hated the name and preferred Priest, but that never really stuck. I say leader because he is accompanied by three other Cenobites, each with their own ghoulish deformities and black leather get-ups. When they appear, expect lots of gory extra-dimensional S&M to ensue!
That’s not the hardest part to swallow in Hellraiser. I even get that Larry, as nice as he is, just can’t give it to Julia in the bedroom the way his delinquent brother could. One can only imagine how sexually adept and freeing Frank must have been for Julia to agree to resort to murder to get his blood pumping again. What I don’t get is why Larry would think moving to his dilapidated childhood home would somehow solve their relationship woes. I know that’s not the main point; the point is they move somewhere remote so neighbors don’t see what kind of fiendish things are happening, but just looking at the house should have been enough for Julia to file for divorce. Frank’s attic hideout is littered with rats and black mold; it looks like it’s been overrun by plague not Cenobites. Who in their right mind moves into a house like this without sanitizing or condemning the whole thing ahead of time?
I get it though; the house is a reflection of the evil infecting it, but it’s a rank place in which to live and mend. It’s good to have the grim house setting since Barker had to tone down the sex and gore to satisfy the MPAA. The gory visual effects that remain are mostly solid given the small budget, although they are dated by their 80′s trappings. Desiccated Frank (Oliver Smith), Skinless Frank and the Cenobites make it a disturbing and entertaining, if not fully comprehendible beginning to this nine-film franchise if you get the chance, and have the stomach, for it. Even former horror writer Jason agrees.