Flesh for Fantasy: Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER

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Even if Clive Barker never made another movie or wrote another book for the rest of his life (which he didn’t; praises to the Flying Spaghetti Monster) he would surely be in the Horror Hall of Fame forever for the movie that marked his debut as a director, a movie so deliciously perverse and intense to the point of inducing your skin to crawl that not even the parade of increasingly lame sequels could dull its razor-sharp impact more than twenty years later. This was the movie that gave us a brilliantly realized gaggle of iconic monsters and treated us to a daring new vision of horror that came out at the perfect time when the slasher horror subgenre that had dominated the decade was going straight into the shitter.

This, my fine fiends, is Hellraiser. And it’s one of my favorites.

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Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry) has made an attempt to repair his failing marriage to the cold Julia (Clare Higgins, The Golden Compass) by moving them back to their old house in England it looks like. I mean the place looks pretty British-probably because the movie was shot there but I digress. Clare isn’t exactly bursting at the seams to be there because she’s hiding a secret from her darling hubby: several years ago after Larry and Julia were married she had an torrid affair with his troublesome drifter brother Frank (Sean Chapman, A Mighty Heart). The not-so-happy couple discovers evidence that Frank had been squatting in the house for a while prior to their return. Then he simply vanished off the face of the earth.

While moving a couch upstairs Larry cuts his hand on a nail and brings it to Julia while she’s reminiscing about all the scorching hot sex she had with the little brother in the attic where he was sleeping during his stay. The blood from the wounds drips onto the floor and causes a being made of goo and dripping flesh to emerge from beneath the boards. It’s Frank, and he’s soon discovered by an understandably horrified Julia. Turns out Frank, an eternally unsatisfied hedonist, was searching for the ultimate source of pain and pleasure. He found it in the form of a puzzle box purchased at a market in an unnamed foreign country. Once he solved the puzzle hooks shot out, piercing his flesh and dragging him into a hell far worse than his most terrifying nightmares and better than he could have ever imagined. Frank was the prisoner of the Cenobites, dark and monstrous beings who specialize in exactly the kind of twisted delights he had been seeking. Now he has escaped from their clutches and in order to elude them he must reform his body.

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Since blood brought him back from the netherworld Frank will need more to become whole again. Julia starts picking up men in bars and bringing them back to the house and then killing them with a hammer blow to the head. Then Frank gets to feed. Into the picture comes Larry’s estranged daughter Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence, Lightning Bug). After catching her skinless uncle Frank in the midst of another feeding frenzy the haunted young woman now finds herself in the sights of both Frank and the Cenobites, who have returned from Hell to bring the wayward human back where he truly belongs. But they may want to take Kirsty back with them.

Few movies can infect the very depths of your soul the way Hellraiser can. Clive Barker pulled no punches in giving you a guided tour of his dark and sordid imagination when he committed this sickening tale to paper and then to film. His stark imagery, soaked with blood and chunks of gore, joins with a witty screenplay to create a visceral cinematic charnel house of horrors. One of the best ways I can sum up this movie is that it’s like getting a Band-Aid ripped off of a very painful infection swiftly. It comes hard and fast, and the pain will linger in you for quite some time.

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Flayed corpses? Check! Massive and rusty steel hooks penetrating deep into human flesh accompanied by queasy ripping sound effects? Double check! A warped soap opera love triangle plot with copious amounts of blood drinking and oozing flesh? Gratuitous British actors unconvincingly dubbed into American English? Acting and visual effects work of varying quality? Triple fucking check! Oh yeah my fiends, Hellraiser is a loaded to bear gift from the gods.

Clive Barker had his finest hour as a screenwriter and director here, adapting the film from his novel “The Hellbound Heart”. The plot is slight but thankfully uncomplicated as it sticks to the basics of storytelling with a simple three-act structure. In fact the Cenobites, lead by the series’ signature player Pinhead (credited in this film as “Lead Cenobite”) as played by Doug Bradley, are hardly in this movie. But goddamn if they don’t look pretty fucking unique. Of course there’s Pinhead as he would become affectionately known as. Bradley never had a better role in his career but he’s always made his presence known as the Cenobites’ reigning bastard of a leader. The make-up that went into creating his head still astounds me. Even in high definition the dude really looks like he has a skull battered with pins. The other Cenobites are visually intriguing but they mostly play the Pips to Pinhead’s Gladys Knight. He gets all the best lines and the coolest evil voice. But the female Cenobite with the throat opening that looks strangely vaginal is sexy in a very perverse manner. I also liked the one whose face consisted of a giant set of teeth and no eyes, but unfortunately for him I just want to be friends.

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The performances from the damned and the not-so-damned are very good for the most part. Whoever got the idea to cast Andrew Robinson, the fucking Scorpio Killer from the original Dirty Harry, as the sympathetic Larry Cotton must be some kind of genius. Robinson’s unconventional looks have kept him from the good lead roles throughout his long career but he’s always been a damn fine actor and in Hellraiser he gives one of his best performances. Without giving too much away to the uninitiated Robinson gets to show off his evil side during the movie’s finale and even Inspector Callahan would be too shit scared to face this mad fucker down. Clare Higgins plays his ice queen wife Julia with that trademark British reserve and just a bit of psychopath bubbling underneath. She has some cool moments in the movie even though her character’s motivation for helping her skinless former lover is lacking. Maybe she’s just getting a sick thrill out of it all.

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Ashley Lawrence had her first major film role as the resilient daughter Kirsty and her fine acting has contributed to her becoming a popular horror actress. She is forced to run a veritable gauntlet of emotions during the movie and Lawrence more than rises to the challenge. Sean Chapman can only be glimpsed in brief flashbacks as the wayward pleasure seeker Frank and it looks like Barker and company didn’t do him any favors by dubbing his voice with another that just doesn’t fit his doofusy face and then hired another actor (Oliver Smith) to play Frank in his skinless form. Of course the Frank character is such a horrible dickwad you have to wonder how this babyfaced dork could get any woman he wants. Frank comes off as a poor man’s Fonzie; I kept waiting for him to start up a jukebox with just his mighty touch. Frank Baker keeps popping up as a creepy homeless guy who comes to play a surprising role in the movie, but Barker has him mostly eating bugs and giving Kirsty weird looks.

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The look of Hellraiser is definitely nightmare-inducing. From Robin Vidgeon’s gloriously dark cinematography to Mike Buchanan‘s production design that can best described as domestic abattoir chic to Christopher Young‘s booming orchestral soundtrack, Clive Barker has the best creative collaborators on his production team and thanks to them all the money in the budget is on screen in all its glory. Bob Keen headed the special effects team and under his direction they produced fantastic sights of gruesome terror that will burn into your mind for a long time after you watch this movie.

Hellraiser is a bonafide fucking classic of horror. Not even a bunch of lousy sequels could keep it down. Here’s one beautifully realized melodramatic gorefest that few modern horrors can barely hold a candle to. Pinhead rules. Clive Barker is a god. Those tweener douche vamp teens from Twilight wouldn’t last five seconds in his world.

This is Hellraiser my fine fiends. Accept no substitutes!

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