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Hellraiser wastes no time in exposition or preamble. A man named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), traveling in an exotic land, pays a large cash sum to a mysterious local at an open air café for an ornately decorated gold puzzle box that looks little like a fancy new Rubik’s Cube. It’s actually called the Lament Configuration. He takes it home to his countryside home and, surrounded by lit candles, as is a necessity for these sorts of rituals, manipulates the hinged cube’s sides as shivering sounds build and eerie blue lights amass. Soon after, when he hits upon the correct sequence, small, sharp hooks jettison from the cube, impale upon his flesh and pull him into a new dimension of unimaginable gore, horror, pain and pleasure, all at the hands of the Cenobites, a ghastly crew of extra-dimensional, humanoid-like creatures adorned in frightful body modifications and piercings, black leather and sinister motivations.
A short time later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) decides to refurbish the old family home not knowing his sibling has been residing within. When he brings his new wife Julia (Clare Higgins) and college-aged daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), they find evidence that Frank had been recently there but now disappeared, leaving only some old photographs in a bedroom and maggot-infested food in the kitchen. Time passes and we learn that the couple isn’t entirely a happy one and that in fact, Frank and Julia were actually secret lovers, something that Julia has yet to recover from. Meanwhile, on moving day, as Larry and two bumbling movers are attempting to carry a mattress up the stairs, Larry slices his hand open on a protruding nail head stuck in the bannister. This causes him to bleed, and as he is one to faint at the sight of blood, gingerly walks up to the attic where Julia is standing and asks for her help, a trail of crimson plodding on the old floorboards at their feet.
What they don’t know is that beneath those floorboards is a disembodied heart of sorts, holding the trapped spirit of Frank. After the couple leave the room, and as the spirit soaks in the pools of blood, Frank begins regenerating from the cellular level, as tissue and bone reanimate into a grotesque fleshy corpse-like being that only partially manifests due to insufficient quantities of nourishment. Hiding in the dark recesses of the attic, Frank waits until Julia returns and discovers his ghastly figure, who at first horrifies her, but quickly convinces her who he is. Despite the horrific nature of his cadaverous-like anatomy, she finds she is still wholly dedicated to her husband’s brother, so reluctantly (initially) agrees to find more blood to fully generate her former lover. Time for a killing spree.
At this point, it must be said that Hellraiser’s greatest visual achievement, despite the Cenobites themselves, comes in this startling effective transformation scene as Frank is rebuilt, literally from the ground up, that might be comparable with the equally disturbing and mesmerizing metamorphosis moment in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Carefully constructed wax figures were slowly melted and edited in reverse to give a truly graphic and highly authentic look to the process. Considering that no CGI was used, it’s a remarkable sequence and testament to how effective practical effects can work in the right hands. It’s a shame none of it was recognized in the award season that followed, though given the genre, expected.
Written and directed by Clive Barker, the first entry in the long running series (and adapted from his own book The Hellhound Heart), Hellraiser is a cult classic that is always intriguing but occasionally disappointing, marred slightly by a script with few surprises and too much reliance on false suspense, over-use of gross-out shocks and people doing things that simply make no sense. However, it sets itself well above the host of teeny-bop slasher films that populated the era by being more mature about sex and the examination of that often very thin line between pain and pleasure. There are a number of themes that are only scantly touched upon, including the use of a stepmother and some odd hints at incest that come and go with no real depth. It’s too bad that these weren’t more explored but at a brisk 90 minutes, things move quickly and there’s only so much time Barker can commit to these themes as his real devotion is to blood, the one constant that drives nearly every scene forward.
Of course, most memorable in Hellraiser are the Cenobites themselves, led by the now iconic Pinhead, as he’s now referred to in pop culture but never in the films. Perhaps some of the most inventive and influential characters to ever come out of horror, they are also incredible creations of fantasy. Brought to life by the special effects team at Pinewood Studio and helmed by Bob Keen of Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) fame, the Cenobites are now synonymous with the franchise, even though they are only briefly seen in the first film before becoming prominent in the sequels. The characters are sadomasochistic and heavily seeped in sexuality, giving even more weight to the adult themes, further separating this from the teenager horror romps by not merely creating monsters per se, but identities that have perverse psychological reach. What makes these beings most interesting is their immortality and how Barker doesn’t play into the tropes of the Final Girl, even though he populates the story with a perfect example of one. The young and blossoming Kirsty is a fitting Final Girl but when it comes time to fight, Baker instead shifts the tone to a deal, not a battle and in turn we realize that the true monster in this story is Frank, the depraved adulterous brother and incestuous uncle.
While Hellraiser has a number of problems and superficially leaves the viewer unsatisfied, it offers those willing to watch again a deeper experience as themes emerge and questions arise. Despite the graphic nature of the movie and the often intense imagery, Barker is often subtle with is visuals and even a bit David Lynch-ian with his approach and while he distracts us with horrific creatures and jarring violence, he is telling a much different story.
Scene Setup: Frank is a disturbed man who, while exceedingly handsome, has learned to manipulate lovers to his bed. Unfortunately, sex is an unsatisfying enterprise and in his pursuits for such, has lost his definition of what is pain and what is pleasure. Numb perhaps to both, especially at the traditional level, he strives to have release. So depraved is he, and yet so magnetic, he arrives at his brother’s wedding and promptly seduces the soon to be wife, deflowering her atop her own wedding gown. She, vulnerable and physically dissatisfied with her fiancé, falls under his spell and even though she marries the brother, a dependable, hard working but ultimately passionless man, she can’t escape the memories of Frank. When she discovers his regenerating body in the attic of the house, it’s shocking for her, even revolting, but when she hears his voice, the memories flood back, and she is instantly caught in his deceitful web. It isn’t long before Frank is animated to a mostly complete figure, though he lacks skin, and for much of the film, he is seen as a bloodied, hairless man that is reminiscent of those life-sized anatomy mannequins seen in school biology classrooms. Except coated in plasma.
This Frank (portrayed by Oliver Smith in this stage) is particularly unsettling as the skinless man, and represents how powerful Frank is as a character, even devoid of the traditional external cues humans rely on for attraction. So enveloped with Frank and the desire for him to fulfill her deepest sexual wants, she sees past his frightening form and longs to have him return. This ignites a passion in her she has kept buried since her marriage and no matter his appearance, triggers a darkness in her that chills her from the first inception of his cruel plan.
That Moment (Timestamp 00:38:30): Julia agrees to Franks morbid demands for more blood, and sets out, dressed to the hilt, to a local up-scale tavern and quickly gets the attention of a businessman drinking at the bar. It’s not long until he is ensnared by her beauty and charms, following her back to the house and up to the attic with promises of sex. She reveals her first hesitancy, but seems ready to follow through as the man begins to removes his clothes, highly anticipating the anonymous tryst. He compliments her as he removes his trousers, but then groans as the urge to urinate overtakes him, the beers at the pub too much to hold in. He apologizes and moves to the closed door but finds it locked. While he fiddles with the handle, she moves to a wall post and strips away a jacket that was hiding a claw hammer. Unaware she is armed, he inquires about the door just as she strikes the blunt end of the tool on his head, spinning him around where she swings again, smashing his lower jaw and mouth, then, as he pleads for her to stop, sets one more blow to his forehead, killing him instantly. Bathed in her victim’s blood, she lets the hammer thump to the floor and gasps for air as she looms over the hemorrhaging body. Breathless, she backs away to the door and then exits as the feeble, sinewy Frank scrambles to his meal.
Julia, panting with adrenaline, heads for the bathroom. She removes her top and like Lady McBeth and the spot that won’t wash clean, rinses her hand under water as she stares in disbelief at her reflection, except that the reflection she stares at is actually us, the viewing audience. We stand in as the mirror and her devastated eyes are pierce like daggers at us, daring us to judge her for what she has become and the twisted path she traveled that brought her to this moment. She wheezes and barely keeps her balance before finally bowing her head down out of the frame, unable to take not only what she sees in the mirror but the horror of what lies ahead. All for sex. Or more accurately, the impossible-to-fill void in her heart for passion and love that both brothers provide in separate ways.
The moment defines the film in many ways, including a blind devotion to desire, but more so, the revelation that deep within, given the motivation, the urgency, the promise of affection, there lies a monster inside each of us, and in fact, to a lesser degree, metaphorically at least, represents the suffering an obsession can commit upon a person. It speaks about humanity as a whole and the horrors done in the name of love, big and small, slight and grand. Julia is consumed by the small taste of passion that Frank showed she never knew existed but now that passion feeds on her. When she realizes the grip it has, to how far she is willing to go, and how that willingness is now reflexive, it shudders her, and us. After she returns to the room and discovers what her efforts have reaped, there is a startling pain that overcomes her, but also a lust that wholly revivifies her, and now we’re back to the central theme of pain and pleasure. Even though she has yet to even meet a Cenobite, she is under their spell.
Hellraiser is a masterwork of art design, special effects and direction that makes a few missteps in it’s journey but doesn’t distract. While the franchise shifted its focus from adult themes to escalating torture horror in the sequels, giving the spotlight to the now famous Pinhead (Or Hell Priest as Barker would eventually name him), the original remains the singular best work and because of its concentration on the plight of those at the mercy of the Cenobite’s influence rather than their victim, it succeeds in telling a fascinating story that ages better with each passing year.