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Hellraiser Review

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Such an established classic as this really needs no introduction, does it?

by Chris McEneany Apr 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    146

    Hellraiser Review
    “We have such sights to show you.”

    In 1987, Scouse fantasist Clive Barker, a one-man fear-factory of prose, theatre, art and film, turned an agreeably spooky house in North London's Dollis Hill into Hell's suburban annex for the ground-breaking and hugely influential movie, Hellraiser. Having grown horrifically tired of the botched attempts to bring his award-winning literature to the screen - Underworld (for which he had even drafted a screenplay) and the rubber-headed absurdity of Rawhead Rex - he took the onus upon himself to fashion a cinematic interpretation of own material. Thus, adapting his novella, The Hellbound Heart (never actually part of his celebrated Books Of Blood, by the way), he assumed almost complete creative control over the project. With the mantra of “I may not do significantly better, but, at least, I can do no worse” than the other film-makers who had wrestled with his dark and demented fantasies, he leapt with vigour into what would become, and remains to this day, his greatest live-action achievement and the birthplace of one of the genre's most memorable, and eloquent, of Terror Titans in the elegantly notorious shape of lead Cenobite, Pinhead.

    “The box ... you opened it. We came.”
    “It's just a
    puzzle-box!”
    “Oh no, child. It is a means to summon us.”
    “Who are you?”
    “Explorers in the outer regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.”


    Such an established classic as this really needs no introduction, does it? Mystical Rubik's Cube, the Lament Configuration, falls into the depraved hands of the ultimate dirty-thrill-seeker, Sean Chapman's grubby Frank, and, once solved, it opens up the gateway to a dimension of pain and pleasure that has the sorry side-effect of tearing him - and his soul - apart. When his brother, Larry (Andy Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move back into the family home, Frank's cesspool remains are somehow reactivated when his sibling's blood hits the spot upon which he was once shredded by the Cenobites, the terrifying custodians of the puzzle-box. Brought back to ghastly, fleshless life, he enlists the aid of his lover, the duplicitous Julia, to bring victims back to the house so that he can take their skin and assume his old roguish self again. But, with the intervention of Larry's teenage daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and more puzzle-box tomfoolery, the Cenobites discover that they have been tricked and that Frank has escaped from Hell ... and that is hardly something that they can just sweep under the Devil's carpet. Thus, mixing elements of diabolism, stalk 'n' slash, mythology, S&M and soap-opera, Clive Barker creates a delightfully nauseating view of the modern family turned horrifically dysfunctional. He crams so many ideas and visual vignettes into the film's ninety-minutes that you tend to forget that it takes place almost entirely within the confines of London suburban house. As a revitalising shot in the arm for a genre that, at the time, was suffering from severe sequelitus and a woeful lack of originality - save for Sam Raimi, Wes Craven (whose A Nightmare On Elm Street was virtually the American equivalent of Hellraiser in many ways) and, in those days, anyway, Re-Animator's Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna - Hellraiser certainly raised hell.

    “What's your pleasure, sir?”


    Literate, theologically both profound and profane, extraordinarily captivating to look at and almost dementedly determined to embrace the colourful and opulent Hammer aesthetic as well as roaring ahead of the trends in terms of thematic ideology and, well, gore, Hellraiser was nothing if not go-for-broke. This no-holds-barred approach from Barker combined with his artistic bent and, at that time, very British sensibility meant that his film was inordinately classy as well as carnal, graceful as well as grotesque. His unblinkered voyeuristic nature was designed to be challenging. He had dark pictures in his head and he wanted us to come and look at them. There were certainly nastier films knocking around at the time, and dirtier ones too, but somehow Barker was able to tap into something that, if not exactly primal, was evidently secreted deep down within the subconscious desires of many of those who read his fiction and saw Hellraiser as much more than just an exercise in horror. A grim romance and a self-sacrificial search for the ultimate in physical and emotional pleasure rolled into one. For Barker and for David Cronenberg, the flesh was all-important, but whilst the Canadian director saw the potential in it for metamorphosis, the Liverpudlian saw it as a doorway, or rather as a fully-permeable membrane that allowed to-ings and fro-ings from this realm to many others. In this fashion, Barker has always been unique. For him, there is very often a religious subtext, a deeper meaning running parallel to conventional belief systems. Snatching up a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft's “other worlds” motif and corrupting it with his own warped observations on life and then his own increasingly bizarre solutions to life's many questions, he delivered a set of veritable parables in his conceptualisation of the Cenobites and their macabre following. That they were not necessarily evil, or even essentially the villains of the piece only added another delicious flavour to the cauldron, solidifying Barker's notion that the monsters should be at least as interesting, intellectually speaking, as the heroes. In fact, probably more so.
    The human stars of the show were undoubtedly English Thespian Clare Higgins and American psychopathic icon Andy Robinson.

    “Come to Daddy! Daddy ...!

    Higgins went on to become another hallmark of the genre for her fabulous portrayal of lapsed wife and burgeoning Pit-slut, Julia. Scenes of her wielding a blood-spattered hammer and caressing the flayed finger proffered by a salacious Frank have long since etched themselves into the image gallery marked Taboo. Her clandestine afternoon assignations with stockbrokers and other Big City jerk-offs a catalogue of dark temptation and wanton butchery, Julia's compliance in Frank's fleshy-rebuild program begins to steadily paint her character as some sort of Satanic Queen, which is something that she was glad to take to an altogether more extreme degree in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Painfully aware of the sheer depravity she is aiding and abetting, Julia's base instincts won't allow her to back out, her infatuation with Frank and the sensations her delivers to her too intoxicating to ignore. Higgins walks the tightrope between classy vamp and Disney-esque witch, her years of stage work doubtlessly ensuring that she never slips into broad parody. The situation, as macabre as it turns out, is funny - a rich vein of the blackest, cruellest humour runs all the way through Barker's screenplay - but it is Higgins who keeps it from falling into a flayed farce.

    “Go to hell!”
    “We cannot go empty-handed.”


    And Andy Robinson, forever Dirty Harry's original nemesis Scorpio, is great as the blood-shy Larry. Cleverly, he manipulates our emotions by switching between the idiotic charms of Frank's docile brother and the cross-over deviousness of the twisted soul that comes to reside within his flesh at a much later stage. Although his performance as Scorpio was so unbearably powerful that he will probably never be able to entirely shake off its disturbing cloak, Robinson is definitely sympathetic as Larry, caught between a rock and a hard place as far as his relationship with Julia goes, and we certainly have no trouble associating with his dumb-but-hopeful attitude. The “shifters” goad his daughter right in front of him, casually get him to serve them beer and Julia, herself, belittles him at virtually every turn - yet he is still more believable in a soft role than many may have expected. However, it is when things turn totally weird that Robinson truly shines. We know a long, long time before Kirsty does that the situation has gone from bad to considerably worse, but Robinson's sick 'n' slick delivery of bluff fatherly love is exquisite. His voice drops down to a gravelly croon and his body posture becomes somehow thicker. He is calming and affectionate, yet his eyes truly gleam with someone else's diseased intentions.

    “You set me up, bitch!”

    Ashley Laurence does well with a role that must have been a real tour de force for such an inexperienced actress. Carrying much of the story on her own shoulders, she has to undergo attempted rape and murder, a soul-numbing confrontation with the Cenobites, a desperate flight from the grabbing hands of the thing in the tunnel and the evil machinations and obvious resentment from her wicked stepmother. Although her reprising of the character in Hellbound: Hellraiser II put more meat on Kirsty's bones, the transition from innocent to dimension-hopping saviour seemed more akin to Sigourney Weaver's evolution from feminist damsel-in-distress in the first Alien to xenomorph-battling uber-warrior out for acid-blood in Aliens. She may not be a great actress, but it must be said that she gives it her all here. I like her drunken phase after the dinner-party and her dizzy but cute fascination with mop-topped Steve's infantile cigarette-trick. As well as screaming her head off and recoiling from many horrid sights she does, at least, get to run a gamut of emotions.

    Barker-regular and Hellraiser series linchpin Doug Bradley inarguably made Pinhead one of the most recognisable monsters in screen history. As the actor quite rightly says of his meal-ticket, “the first reaction that everyone gives when they first see Pinhead in full makeup is ... wow!” Classical, aristocratic and inordinately refined, Pinhead is the Messiah of Mutilation. Extremely powerful, yet never making more than the simple gesture of an accusatory finger in the direction of a shrivelled corpse, his countenance is truly spellbinding. Yet it is when he opens his mouth that his real imperial charisma is unleashed. Bradley's voice ripples with density, status and
    unhallowed decorum. At once chilling and hypnotic, his delivery of Barker's classic lines is utterly beyond reproach. Can he act without a layer or two of latex on his mush? Who cares? He was born to play this character and the only caveat with this is that he ended up playing him too many times, turning Pinhead into nothing more than a generic walk-on bogeyman. Here, though, and in the first sequel, he is simply outstanding. Barely even in this episode, yet still conspiring to steal the entire show, he has only to stand there - bedecked in nails and speciality leather - and say a line to ensnare even the purest of hearts with that Gothic presence. For me, his best moment is not when he utters any of the most famous lines, interspersed throughout these paragraphs, folks, but when he replies to Kirsty's question about whether he and his trio of confederates have done this sort of thing before. “Many times,” he says, his voice an infernal stew of tired delight, solemn regret, pity, reverence and age-old devotion to duty. For the power of speech alone, Pinhead rises above the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and Leatherface. And, with regards to ceremonial slaughter and hellish importance, he even consigns Freddy Krueger to the lower quarters of Satan's Manor House.

    This is not for your eyes ...”

    Mind you, the actor most overlooked in all this has to be Oliver Smith, who essays the skinned Frank monster lurking in the attic - Sean Chapman is only the fully human incarnation. Brilliantly portrayed by Smith, this foul thing glistens in the moonlight, makes suggestive advances towards both Julia and Kirsty whilst in a condition that can hardly arouse the ardour, matter-of-factly bisects rats and routinely slaughters duped paramours of his salacious sister-in-law. Odd moments linger in the mind - Frank's wall-banging rage in the middle of the night; his first taste of a cigarette on his flambéed lips; the half-remembered image in a collapsing Kirsty's mind of him lolling towards her like a peeled tomato; his dreadfully moist noises oozing menace and, of course, the howl that he unleashes after his body has reformed is magnificently rendered.

    “Every drop of blood that you spill puts more flesh on my bones ... and we both want that, don't we?”


    Bob Keen works wonders with his special effects micro-budget. Pinhead's geometrically perfect grid of cranium-banged nails is obviously the immortal image that the jovial make-up man is most renowned for. But his jigsaw of torn flesh scattered about the attic floor in the aftermath of Frank's initial foray into the wicked delights of the Cenobites is also a gruesome delight. Dessicated corpses vomiting maggots and a hook-stretched head at the end add their own sickening craftsmanship up for well-deserved scrutiny, as well. There are, inevitably, some creations that didn't hold up all that splendidly even when the film was first released. I'm thinking here of the ugly, fang-snapping scorpion-beast prowling around the dark labyrinth of the box - which looks like something Sam Raimi would have wisely discarded from Evil Dead II - and the ambitious but really rather daft-looking pterodactyl-cum-dragon chassis that takes cumbersome flight at the end - this particular critter even appears to be giving a Sid James-style cackle at its own phoniness. But the execution of the Cenobites sure takes some beating. With Nicholas Vince's frightening wire-sliced “Chatterer” and Simon Bamford's multi-chinned sweat-fest, “Butterball”, bringing up the rear, Grace Kirby's lowly-monikered “Female Cenobite” delivers a touch of almost oriental sensuality to her role as hook-wielding victim mediator. Slashed guts, opened throats and stitched-up eye-sockets certainly never go out of fashion on Hell's Catwalk.

    “No tears, please. It is a waste of good suffering.”

    Whilst his work here is disturbingly original, Clive Barker also wears his influences quite proudly on his sleeve. The scene when Larry cuts his hand on that horrible “sticky-out” nail is gloriously reminiscent of both Hitchcock and Argento and his lighting scheme is also a reminder of the Italian super-shockers from Mario Bava and, once again, from a mid-seventies/early-eighties on-form Argento. The distant memory of Hammer is also to be found in the grand moments of full-on, “look-at-me” horror playing beneath such large-scale orchestral music from Christopher Young, re-establishing the sheer English theatricality of it all. The big rebirth sequence hails from the same stable as David Cronenberg, in that we are informed that there is a strange beauty in the process of such grisly business too. His terrifically surreal touches - Kirsty's dream of feathers and corpses clearly recalls A Nightmare On Elm Street - are weird hybrid moments of lulled limbo. The blood-bag filling up and the twitching image on the TV screen in the hospital room are, at once, out of step with the film's own fractured logic though still curiously haunting just the same, yet they make more sense than the beast in the tunnel, which goes to prove that, sometimes, Barker loses momentum in his desire for grandeur and incident and just seems to throw any old idea onto the screen in his staggeringly confident wish to bombard us with a cavalcade of horrors. The strange interludes with the vagrant - who always reminds me of Tom Baker, for some reason - and the whole “pseudo-American” feel to the film, egged-on by the US money-men of New World, of course, rankles viewers of both this and Hellbound. We are clearly in England yet we have American stars taking some crucial roles, some British actors speaking with American accents and a severe lack of explanation as to how this Apple Pie enclave came to be in the heart of neat English suburbia in the first place. Then again, this kind of abstraction plays into the whole reality-removed nightmare scenario that makes this film so compelling and dangerous. Like the religious stories he enjoys inverting and twisting, Barker knows that close examination will unearth gaping plot-holes, but he just wants to mesmerise, provoke and stun. All of which he achieves with Hellraiser which, for a horror film, also manages to doe that all-too rare thing in actually promoting discussion and encouraging you to think beyond the formula, and wider than the narrative, itself.

    “Not leaving us so soon, are you?”

    Barker also believed in his story enough to know that it needed a powerful score and, in Christopher Young, he found one of the most dynamic, imaginative and inventive new young composers on the scene - a tunesmith who equally understood the full importance of what was being attempted on screen. Young would go on to score such memorably diverse and atmospheric music for Tobe Hooper's Invaders From Mars remake, Fly II, Species (see soundtrack review) and Spider-Man 3, but his most ambitious and full-blooded scores would have to be those he supplied for Hellraiser and its first sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Richly orchestral and powerfully symphonic, his eerie, mysterious and downright terrifying score for Pinhead's grisly inauguration here is deeply stimulating and wickedly demonic. He weaves elegant themes for the Lament Configuration, Frank's epic rebirth (one of the most gorgeously disturbing waltzes you will ever hear), the anvil-clanging proclamation of the Cenobites, themselves, with exquisite carnival-esque mischief, tumbling percussive squalls and nerve-snapping, sonorously deep bell-chimes. Combined with terrific horror-film staples of dissonance, stingers and chain rattles this all comes together to create a work that its, at once, ethereal, disturbing and hellishly beautific. Soul Music never sounded quite like this before, that's for sure.

    Barker's blood-drenched debut is ripe with subtext and iconography, and is an intense slew of the most ambitious, yet intimate fantastique, helping it to become positively one of the most audacious and outrageously single-minded horror soap-operas ever conceived. His film may lack coherence and mishandle one or two narrative asides - just what is Frank doing to his victims and how does it give him new flesh? - but its main concept is hammered home with studied, almost academic ferocity. The Cenobites took the world by storm, subverting religion and hedonism with equal arrogance until their bloodied, scarified culture became the fascination for a generation at least. In a rare example of the form, Barker's own screenplay improved upon his novella by endowing Pinhead with even more wildly memorable and elegantly profane dialogue. Plus, it was one filmic interpretation of a literary source that didn't disappoint those who had tried to imagine its world, and actually came up with visuals that properly and impressively depicted the prose. Spawning far too many needless sequels and losing steam even by the end of the first one, Hellraiser's mythology jabs a bloody finger in the eye of convention, turning beliefs and obsessions on their heads and probing the darkest of desires with a cavalier, once-in-a-lifetime approach. Barker's subsequent books would push boundaries back even further, but his movies would just collapse under the weight of over-reaching ideas, staid narratives and the simple, and sadly unforgivable lack of the same courageous savagery that he showed with his first-born motion picture.

    Hellraiser is a classic not only of the horror genre, but of British Cinema too (regardless of where the money to make it came from!). Yes, it has some rough edges and it is not "conventionally" terrifying, but it remains gleefully inventive, ultra-stylish and endlessly thought-provoking.

    But, in a slight sting in the tale, there is the unsettling development underway of a remake to consider. As one character so marvellously understates as the hooks tear into his flesh, “Jeee-sus ... wept!