‘Hellraiser’ (1987) Movie Review
An unfaithful wife encounters the zombie of her dead lover, who’s being chased by demons after he escaped from their sadomasochistic Hell.
Not a spoiler-free review. It’s 27 years old for God’s sake.
Hellraiser is hit or miss in with me. Based on Clive Barker’s book, The Hellbound Heart, this film was a much-needed theatrical shot in the arm, inspiring many writers and directors to deviate from boring slasher films and focus on darker cinematic paths. Our antagonist, Frank (Sean Chapman), a hedonistic piece of shit, set afloat in his personal sea of discontent, always searching for the greatest rush. His self-serving quest eventually puts him in the path of a black market magician who offers Frank an enigmatic puzzle box. “What is your pleasure, sir?” Apparently, Frank’s pleasure was soul-raping torture and pain.
Meet Frank’s half-brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), and his wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who, in standard horror movie form, are moving into the old family home. They find evidence Frank is squatting in the home, but little do they know his decimated physical form is trapped; dormant between the floors, waiting for a catalyst to awaken him. And little does Larry suspect his wife and half-brother got it on.
Larry is helping the movers while Julia explores the house, reminiscing about the first time Frank made love to her. As her memories get a little splooshy, Larry blindly drags his hand across a nail jutting out of the newel post. Blood flows liberally and Larry stumbles to Julia for help. A few drops of blood splatter to the floor and Frank draws the crimson life to him, These precious drops of blood give Frank some of his form back. Still mostly raw meat and bones, Julia discovers her dreadful former lover. The shock is short-lived and Frank convinces Julia to bring him fresh blood to complete his transformation.
Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) arrives home, and it seems she and Julia aren’t exactly tight. After a little snooping, Kirsty finds Julia involved in some clandestine meetings with what she assumes are sexual partners. It takes a little time, but she learns Frank is behind it, manipulating her stepmother into bringing him fresh meat so he can attain a solid physical form. This whole scenario is ridiculous. Frank gains 75% of his mass back from just a few drops of Larry;s blood, now we’re expected to believe several more people need to die in order for Frank to get his groove back. Terrible writing in my opinion.
Kirsty finds the mysterious box and accidentally solves the puzzle. Great news for puzzle lovers, terrible news for people who don’t mean to open a Hell dimension and summon a group of Cenobites. Kirsty has the displeasure of meeting Pinhead and finds out the purpose of the box. She solved the puzzle and opened the box, summoning the Cenobites, who have but one purpose: appear when summoned and take their new victim to painful new levels of hell. Kirsty might have something to trade for her freedom, plunging the film into full-on horror mode.
Now, I said the film was hit or miss, so lets look a some examples of both, and you can draw your own conclusion on the film.
Hits: The story of the cube and the Cenobites. Pinhead and his band of grotesque torturers make for hideous horror antagonists. The scene where we first see Pinhead is amazing. I remember a girl behind me at the theater started bawling when Pinhead (Doug Bradley) appeared. Most horror fans agree the Cenobites are the stuff of nightmares.
Kirsty is also among the strong elements of the film. A like a powerful and empowered female lead, and Kirsty wasn’t going to just lay down for anyone, Hell dimensional travelers or not.
Hellraiser has some awesome practical effects. A second actor, Oliver Smith, was hired to play monster Frank due to his thin nature. The latex suit he uses is nothing less than amazing, The slimy, partially constructed, Frank, with his exposed spine, muscles, and veins, adds a perfectly ghoulish touch.
Misses: Acting an likability are thin throughout. The characters aren’t particularly clever, witty, or likable, and the characterization sucks. Horror movies get a bad rap for one-dimensional characters, and Hellraiser is part of the problem. Kirsty is the only strong actor besides Doug Bradley, and the filmmakers treat her like an actress doing a daytime soap cameo. Such a waste from a beautiful and talented actress.
Barker’s directorial debut is awkward and short-sighted. He frames a few cool shots, but his strengths remain in the creation of the story. His tales are hard to define, but often feature eons old forms of evil, even touching the Lovecraftian mythos at times.
Even with such amazing villains, the end of the movie is executed poorly. These inter-dimensional Cenobites are unable to rush a human, or even command one of those damn chain hooks to restrain Kirsty? She casually aims the cub at the Cenobites, banishing them one at a time.
I give Barker credit for inspiring a slew of new filmmakers, but Hellraiser isn’t a horror masterpiece in my opinion. The Cenobites are terrifying, and the story is original, but the film is soft in too many places. Based in the nostalgic appeal of the film, this kind of gets a free pass. I think I’m violating my own double-standards, Anyway, the entire Hellraiser franchise is up for instant viewing at Netflix. I’m to try a chronological franchise review, but who knows when I’ll lose interest.
The Cenobites are creepy as hell. But I actually think the cheating wife was really messed up too, luring hapless dudes to their death. Like you said the practical effects are terrific and I think that skinless man still looks great by today’s standards.
Skinned Frank is some amazing work. That whole bloody, translucent glob is terrifying.