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There are certain expectations when dealing with a film titled 'Hellraiser'. For example, one would expect that hell will be involved, and, further, that someone or something will be raising that hell. In this respect, Clive Barker's horror legacy does not disappoint. However, now that Hellraiser has permeated popular culture, we have higher expectations to be met. We expect the makings of a classic, the iconic Pinhead instilling exquisite terror. In short, we expect a nightmare on celluloid. The film does not disappoint. It is a masterfully executed production, with a chilling story, great performances, and amazing special effects.
The story begins with Frank Cotton, purchasing himself a mysterious little puzzle box from a mysterious little fellow. He takes the box home, opens it, and is pulled off into a dimension of eternal sadomasochism ruled by strange creatures called Cenobites (“Demons to some. Angels to others.”). We cut to Larry Cotton, Frank's brother, moving in to Frank's abandoned home with his second wife, Julia. An unfortunate moving accident cuts open Larry's hand. As the blood drips onto the floor where Frank was torn from this world, Frank is able to work his way back from the Cenobite dimension, albeit as a skinless monster, needing the blood of living reconstitute himself. He is helped in secret by Julia, who is seeking to rekindle an old affair. However, neither Larry's daughter, Kristy, nor the Cenobites, are pleased that Frank has returned.
The key to any good monster film, Hellraiser included, is having a solid, scary creature to get behind. Pinhead (Doug Bradley), originally credited as 'Lead Cenobite' has an almost gravelly poise, a low-voiced military leader with a calm yet destructive demeanor. It makes a wonderful change from the hands-on types such as Jason Voorhees or the wisecracks of Freddy Krueger. Pinhead and the other Cenobites are these bizarre, fetishistic creatures, unlike anything before seen in cinematic horror. Their skin pallid, warped in painful and unnatural ways, the Cenobites are as twisted in flesh as they are in mind. While the actors play their part, the true star here is the makeup. From the lumpy, grotesque features of 'Butterball' to the signature grid-face pattern of Pinhead, they are created with such frightening realistic features, almost as if you can see what was once human about them. However, they are now utterly something else.
While the history of this mystical puzzle box and the Cenobites isn't fully explored, we get enough glimpses at them to be drawn into this frightening yet intriguing world, where pain and pleasure are indiscernible. A simple story of a box that summons and unsummons these vile creatures would not be that intriguing, in and of itself. It's the elements of their world that pour onto and into ours, the vicious chains and flesh hooks, and the mysterious spinning obelisk. They are mysterious and mortifying. When Kirsty enters their world, albeit briefly, we are met with visions of a labyrinthine hell, occupied by ghastly, ravenous creatures. While all these element do not establish any sort of solid mythos or background, there is just enough to see the glimerings history behind this puzzlebox and the evil connected to it. It's not much, but it's enough.
Early in Hellraiser, there is one sequence that stands out for being absolutely beautiful in the strange, grotesque manner, characteristic of the film: Frank's return to the real world from the Cenobite dimension. It begins with a strange goo puddling up from the floorboards that earlier absorbed Larry's spilled blood. The pools of goo grow until, suddenly, two limbs, too featureless and thin to possibly be human, erupt from the primordial soup. They bend in the middle, and slowly this ooze begins to bubble with flesh, blood, and bone. A barely-recognizable human form begins to reconstruct itself from the ether. Hellraiser, being from an era before CGI, was accomplished using all practical effects, which are executed with such precision that it is absolutely magical to behold. For that moment on film, it is easy to believe that this is some mystically messy resurrection unfolding on the screen. Bob Keen may have only received a Saturn Award nomination for his work, but he deserved far more. This initial sequence, the subsequent utterly realistic effects of skinless Frank, and the aforementioned Cenobites - it's all just flat out amazing.
While, earlier, I briefly touched on the actors behind the Cenobites, the real star of Hellraiser is Andrew Robinson. As Larry Cotton, Andrew brings a touch of believable compassion to the character. The soft, gentle way he interacts with his daughter, the utter panic when he accidentally cuts himself - it all adds up to this perfect, poor victimized fellow upon which the film hinges. While most of the other characters are active, driving forces, the ones killing and discovering, Larry is reacting in a way that the audience might. He is a man trying to keep his dysfunctional family together and happy. When twists at the end alter Larry's character a great deal (and for the sake of not spoiling this plot point, I shall remain vague), Andrew portrays that difference perfectly. You can see the subtle changes, right down to a slightly different tone of voice. It's a beautiful cherry on top of the sundae that is this film.
I can cram as much praise as possible into these few paragraphs, but, ultimately, words can't really encapsulate the experience of actually seeing Hellraiser. This humble reviewer isn't normally one for a lot of gore, yet with Hellraiser, all of the violence and viscera are but the proper pigments for the canvas. It just feels right, fitting together into a beautiful visual package that is a delight to behold. If you haven't yet discovered the pleasure of Clive Barker's Hellraiser, rush to your preferred video retailer. You won't regret it.
Based on Barker's short story "The Hellbound Heart."
Bradley was offered a choice between the role of "Lead Cenobite" and one of the mattress movers. He nearly took the latter.
The line "Jesus wept" was an ad lib by Andrew Robinson.