Monday, 13 October 2008

Discount Bin Movie Club: Hellraiser

Back in 1987 Clive Barker was known to horror fans as the author of very elaborate, vivid, gory, and violent stories and novels that some wags dubbed "splatterpunk" and "body horror" that covered themes surrounding the body, sexuality, urban and moral decay, as well as the nature of good and evil.

Then he took it one step beyond, by writing and directing a low budget film called Hellraiser.

Adapted from by Barker from his short story
The Hellbound Heart, it begins with Frank Cotton, a thoroughly disreputable character who is obsessed with taking sensation, preferably pleasure, to the extremes, and beyond. He purchases a puzzle box, later dubbed the Lament Configuration, that promises to open doors to new sensations beyond anything the decadent Frank has known.

And boy does it ever. Before he can say: "Sorry wrong number" he is literally torn apart by supernatural hooks in a hellish otherworld ruled by strange S&M obsessed humanoids called Cenobites, led by one later dubbed Pinhead (Doug Bradley) .

Quite some time later Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the old family house with his second wife, the alternatively icy and lusty, Julia (Claire Higgins) for a new job and a chance to live closer to Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter by his late wife. What Larry doesn't know is that Julia had an affair with Frank, and became enthralled with her mild husband's thuggish brother. While moving in, Larry cuts his hand, and spills some blood on the spot where Frank got osterized, and the next thing you know, good old scumbag Frank is literally crawling out of the woodwork.

However, it's not all of Frank, a good chunk of him is still stuck in Pinhead's playpen, and he needs blood and plenty of it to rebuild himself and make a final escape from his extra-dimensional tormentors. So Julia starts picking up lonely men in bars, luring them to the attic, where she can then feed Frank what he needs.

Kirsty, suspicious of her stepmother, suspects that she's having an affair, but when she stumbles onto the truth, well, she gets a little freaked out. The rest of the film involves her making a deal with the Cenobites in order to save herself and stop the wicked stepmother and the skinless uncle from continuing their killing spree.

Story wise, it's a simple well constructed script, and despite what the cover art may say, does not really offer Pinhead and his compadres as the main "monsters" that honour goes to Frank and Julia, the gruesome twosome. The Cenobites aren't so much Deus Ex Machina, but Demonus Ex Machina, doling out pain and whether or not it comes out as justice, is purely by chance, and the Cenobites really don't care. And that's key. All the Cenobites really care about is suffering, which to them is indistinguishable from pleasure, they are addicted to both giving and recieving as much of it as possible. They don't care who to, but they do care if you escape, because that just makes them mad. They are not unreasonable, unthinking brutes, but cold, calculating creatures whose thought processes operate on a completely different wavelength than us humans.

Barker's achievement was in creating a creature that is truly inhuman, not only in appearance and action, but in how they think and feel, which is pretty daring thing to emerge in the 80s, the age of the "evil for evil's sake" mindless slasher, and the increasingly sado-campy antics of Freddy Krueger.

Special effects wise the film is a little dated. The fake skin can look a lot like rubber in the close ups, and the sparks of energy around the puzzle box look painted on the film, but when you consider the budget and the tech level they were operating at, they did a pretty good job.

The actors pretty much acquits themselves well. I especially like Andrew Robinson, who usually gets typecast as villains and creeps, playing "the nice guy" for a change and Claire Higgins' brings that scintilla of vulnerability to a role that would normally have come off as the wicked witch/ice queen stereotype. Ashley Laurence works with what she has, making her ability to work out the skinless uncle/Cenobite connection believable.

The film also has many of Barker's favourite visual tropes of urban decay to symbolize moral decay, roaches, maggots, cracked walls, broken plaster, dirt, grime, and stark, unpleasant industrial settings.

Sadly, the film was followed by a succession of sequels, which provided Barker and Doug "Pinhead" Bradley with paycheques, but had scant connections to the original movie and its core ideas, with several starting out as completely unrelated scripts and the producers (Dimension Films) slapping Pinhead in a cameo, and
Hellraiser on the title thinking it would somehow make these cinematic turds shine. Most ended up in their own straight to DVD purgatory, to never really be seen again.

The $5 version I picked up isn't the fancy 20th Anniversary edition, so extras are a little sparse, though it does have an audio commentary, and a little retrospective featurette on the making of the film, that shows just how little they had to work with, but how they did so much with what they had.

All in all, a pleasant, but spooky trip down memory lane, well worth the $5.


  1. haha. I just watched Hellraiser again, it was being shown on Spike TV the other night. It was pretty gory, cheesy and awesome. Did you hear that Michael Bay is doing a remake? Grr.

  2. Barker is trying to do a remake himself, to sort of reboot the franchise and maybe do sequels that actually had something to do with the original, but Harvey Weinstein of Dimension Films which owns the remake writes keeps scotching the deal.

    Weinstein doesn't want Barker involved, but something in the contract says Barker has to be, so they're at an impasse, unable to decide on a director, or even a script.