Time hasn’t done Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” any favors. Looking every bit like what it is — a low-budget horror movie made in 1987 — the original “Hellraiser” is clearly ambitious, that much it can lay claim to. Unfortunately the budget and resources aren’t there to transform Barker’s ideas into celluloid, and the result is a film that drags for most of its first hour and makes very little sense when all is said and done. By virtue of the film having come out during a time when the market was mired in imitation Teen Slashers, I suppose some leeway should be given.
The film is about a puzzle box that, when “solved”, opens a gateway to either heaven or hell. Unfortunately for adventurer Frank (Sean Chapman), the box frees a group of demons in tight black leather called the Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley), so named because, well, he has pins sticking out of his face. With Frank missing, married couple Larry and Julia moves back into the family house. Unbeknownst to them, Frank has “escaped” the Cenobites, and is hiding under the floorboards of one of the upstairs rooms. Not long after moving in, an accident resurrects Frank from death, but he returns in protoplasm form.
As it turns out Julia (Clare Higgins) once had an affair with Frank, and is still madly in love with him. Frank, in his barely-alive state, convinces Julia to bring men to the house, kill them, and then he will drink their blood and regain flesh. Unfortunately for our duo, spunky Fair Hair Lead Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is sneaking around, and she’s determined to save her father from Julia and Frank. I think.
In a nutshell, “Hellraiser” is a mess. It may have worked better in novel form, but as a movie “Hellraiser” makes little to no sense and the direction by Barker seems to take forever to get to the point. And the point? To introduce the Cenobites, now the franchise’s stars. This finally happens at the hour mark. As fans of the franchise know, the Cenobites really don’t have much of a role in these movies. They will usually show up toward the end to do their “pain is great” gig and then get “killed” by the hero. But like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, death is relative. Alas, even in this original, the Cenobites have a limited role. We’re talking little more than cameos here.
“Hellraiser” works as a low-budget gore film, because it’s certainly gory. Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen the cut version of “Hellraiser”, having seen this uncut version I can’t say if there’s anything radically different to be found. Oh sure, there’s plenty of gore, but most of it seems gratuitous and superfluous to the story at hand. Despite a limited budget, Barker and company does manage some impressive scenes. And it’s probably no surprise that the movie, being a Clive Barker film, does more than just hint at the relationship between sex, death, and S&M. Sadomasochism is, after all, a Barker staple.
Those looking for a film that will scare them needn’t look to “Hellraiser”. There’s nothing about this movie that will scare. It’s very disgusting at times, and brief glimpses of chains digging into flesh might make the uninitiated squirm. Even so, considering the franchise’s later installments, this original seems tame by comparison. Before the Cenobites show up, we are basically watching Frank and Julia killing men that Julia brings home. Or actually, Julia kills them, because according to the script Frank is such a super lay that Julia will bash a stranger’s head in with a hammer for him.
Which brings us to the film’s main flaw. The script. The movie never convinces us that Frank is such a stud that Julia will do just about anything for him. Apparently all it takes to mesmerize Julia into becoming your love slave is to cut off her bra strap with a switchblade and then have sex with her in a missionary position. Higgins and Chapman are not convincing, which contributes to the film’s general feeling of malaise. As the supposed heroine, Ashley Laurence is average in her feature film debut. And Andrew Robinson is missing for most of the movie.
“Hellraiser” gets credit for coming at a time when its serious take on horror (such as it is) helped to move the genre into a new direction. As a movie viewed almost 20 years later, it’s not very impressive. A convoluted script and the seemingly random nature of the puzzle box don’t help matters. For something that can open the gates to either heaven or hell, that box sure is easy to “solve”. Later installments would go on to explore the box and the Cenobites, but this original sure doesn’t do much in the way of establishing the mythos.
Clive Barker (director) / Clive Barker (screenplay)
CAST: Andrew Robinson …. Larry Cotton
Clare Higgins …. Julia Cotton
Ashley Laurence …. Kirsty Cotton
Sean Chapman …. Frank Cotton
Robert Hines …. Steve