Hellraiser is Clive Barker’s bonkers franchise-starting horror about S&M demons dragging stayriasists into a sexual underworld that makes Christian Gray’s Red Room seem PG. It is the film that introduced the world to Pinhead, by the director once named by Stephen King ‘the future of horror’. Time tells a different story but this remains rollicking good fun.
It’s the imagery of Hellraiser that sticks in the mind as the credits roll. Not all of it works – for every spikey headed success there’s a trombonist from Star Wars’ cantina – but when it does, the creative thrust at work in the financially strapped production is extraordinary. Best of these comes when the gloopy, skeletal form of a hell-ravaged Sean Chapman erupts through the bubbling wooden floor of his attic, having been resurrected by the accidental spilling of blood in the previous scene. It’s exquisitely grim, gorgeously lit and grossly memorable.
Chapman plays Frank Cotton, a no-hoper sex junkie, whose drive for extreme arousal sees him buy a puzzle box with the power to open a portal to other dimensions from a mysterious merchant. Fiddling with the box, amid a sanctum of candles, Frank succeeds in his coitus summoning ritual but gets more than he bargained for. Through the breach he forms in the time-space continuum come the cenobites – ‘demons to some, angels to others’ – a ragtag collection of celestial beings who rip him limb from limb, face from skull: ‘pain and pleasure indivisible’. They clean up afterwards, so it could be worse.
The blood that resurrects Frank is unwittingly bequeathed courtesy of his estranged brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), who, along with wife Julia (Claire Higgins), has decided to move back into his childhood home, where Frank had been squatting. What Larry doesn’t realise is that Julia is something of a part time nymphomaniac herself and has never quite got past the thrill of the secret affair she had with Frank before they married. When Julia finds Frank in the loft, a messy mound of blood and bone, she proceeds to lure unsuspecting men into the house and murder them to help Frank complete his bodily reformation. Why? Perhaps she imagines the two of them frolicking off on the open road together. Maybe she enjoys it; there is certainly something suggestive about the increasing elevation of Higgins’ hair through the course of the film. Either way, the briefly orgasmic response she has to her first kill is among the film’s most quietly disturbing scenes.
For all its morbidly straight aspiration – ‘No tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering’ – the film is ludicrous in essence and structure. Barker’s script is loaded with sticky, black comedy and he seems to have drawn tonal inspiration from the Jacobean theatre of the English Renaissance. Present and correct are the themes and ideas Faustus, Macbeth and Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. It’s all deeply gothic and rarely naturalistic, whilst an odd elegance is born of the imperial performances of Higgins and Doug Bradley, who plays the lead Cenobite, later known as Pinhead. As a result, the film carries an almost camp archness, which will work for some but not all. The effect is hardly helped by the film’s use of dodgy CGI, forced by the failure of Barker’s budget to stretch to post-production.
Winona Ryder lookalike Ashley Lawrence picks up the mantle of ‘last girl standing’ in the closing act of the film and would return for a further three films in the increasingly unlikeable franchise.