Hellraiser (1987)

Thirty years on and this film still delivers the goods…

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This is one of the best horrors of the 80’s. I watched it at a too-young age, and what struck me about it was how dark, adult and grim it was. Oh, and gory. Bleurgh. It’s also pretty funny in places though, especially towards the end, but in an era when horror had become sequel-fatigued and very self-aware, Hellraiser gave us horror straight-up, extreme, nightmarish, yet also original, clever and imaginative. What might surprise newcomers to the series is that ‘Pinhead’, despite being the main focus when the film was originally marketed, is not the chief villain here, not in the same way Freddy or Jason was. He’s not even called ‘Pinhead’ – that was something that caught on with the fans, and apparently Clive Barker is not a fan of the name. Still, he was happy to call one of the others (in the credits) ‘Butterball’, so it’s not like he’s not got a sense of humour.

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No, the main bad guy here is a pretty despicable piece of shit named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) who makes the mistake of purchasing a puzzle box that, when solved, opens up a gateway to Hell or somewhere equally horrific, where extreme pleasure is matched with extreme pain by the deeply freaky Cenobites. We don’t get to see much of the pleasure element in this film – most of what we see is torn-apart faces, upside down torture and hooks through skin. Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank’s former digs, and a bloody accident results in Frank being able to return to Earth, albeit in extremely primitive, barely-there form. His ‘resurrection’ is one of the best scenes in the film, and not one to watch whilst eating – it’s bloody minging. Yet it’s also given some kind of grand beauty by Christopher Young’s amazing, epic score – honestly, ‘Resurrection’ is one of the best pieces of music I have heard in a film, ever. When Julia and what’s barely-there of Frank are reunited, a particularly fucked-up plot to bring him fully back to life begins to form…

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This was Clive Barker’s first film, and given that he was adapting his own work, there’s very little in the way of compromise – of course, handling your own work is no guarantee of success, but he proves himself to be a near-perfect director of horror. The sense of dread, foreboding and nastiness has rarely been matched. This made a lot of horror back then seem awfully adolescent in comparison. When I first watched it I was repulsed, fascinated and scared. Even something that could be could considered a major flaw – the decision during making the film (enforced by the studio) to change the location from England to the US, kind of works in its favour, the film occupies a strange Nowherestown mood where, for instance, the accents are American but the British Rail symbol is still present in the background in one scene! The special effects are variable – hooks go into some clearly rubber skin at one point, yet later on they look horribly effective when they’re stretching a particular character’s face apart. Additionally, the light-show effects at the end have never looked great but the resurrection scene is one of the best uses of stop-motion and practical effects in cinema history, and is utterly bloody repulsive too.

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As for the Cenobites, they’re sparingly used, but extremely effective whenever they are on screen. Doug Bradley made for an instantly iconic ‘Lead Cenobite’ – the scene when he and the other three threaten to take Kirsty to Hell is incredible, and that ‘we’ll tear your soul apaaaarrrrt!!’ line is just one of many brilliant slices of dialogue. Other performances? A few of the supporting ones are a little iffy (the fact that they were dubbed to go with the new US setting doesn’t help), but Clare Higgins makes for a deliciously complex villain, Ashley Laurence as Larry’s resourceful daughter makes for a great, gutsy heroine and Andrew Robinson gets to do a hell of a lot in the role of Larry, especially in the final act.

Top marks for this classic – it’s still got the goods, even almost thirty years on.

PS: Here’s that British Rail logo! It’s from a speeding train, so forgive the blurry image.

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PSS: That is not Alan Moore playing the role of the ‘derelict’.

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