This is a movie that makes me shutter. I wouldn't say it induces high peaks on the Fear-o-meter, but rather a steady wave of disgust and anxiety. I was less likely to say, “Holy Crap!” than I was to say, “ughhhhh, creepy.” But like George and Jerry would say, “Hey, not that there is anything wrong with that.” Creepy is a great thing. It’s the foundation of fear. So let’s get back to horror basics with Hellraiser.
Click here to jump to the end for a SPOILER FREE REVIEW
Our tale opens on our villain Frank buying a small wooden cube in the seedy underbelly of some third-world country. This magical box evidently leads to his torturous destruction seeing as a monstrous figure proceeds to put Frank’s face back together like a jigsaw puzzle. But thankful we quickly cut away from the blood to establish the human side of the story.
Larry and Julia are moving into their new house, (Frank’s old house) lugging along some emotional baggage as well. Julia has a troubled relationship with Larry as well as with Larry’s college-aged daughter Kirsty. Through some not so subtle flashbacks and some not so subtle nudity, we learn about Julia’s affair with and obsession over the late resident-and-scumbag, Frank, Larry’s brother. But even though Frank is dead, his scumbaging day’s aren’t over yet. After an accident involving some blood on the floor, Frank appears in the flesh (or at least some of it) to Julia, demanding the blood of others. Lovingly Julia is able to look past Frank’s grossness and bring him duped victims to drain of blood. Each victims puts more meat on Frank’s bones and the sadistic couple come closer to running off together. Frank is a little anxious to get going since the people that tore him up before, the Cenobites, are still looking for him.
At the same time, young Julia makes the mistake of playing with that Magic box and she get to meet the Cenobites herself. Instead of eternal torture this mutilated 80’s Rock Band offers her freedom in exchange for the re-animated Frank.
The third act is a romp around the hose to ratchet up the gore and kill off Larry and Julia. The Cenobites catch up with Frank and, to put it briefly, kill him (just wait, I’ll get to that scene in a minute). Julia solves the magic Rubik's cube and sends all the Cenobites back to hell. It wraps up with Julia and her supporting boy/man watching the cube disappear in the clutches of a skeletal-pterodactyl back to the seedy third-world country where came
But to put the plot more succinctly, here are bunnies.
Here’s what was Good
Clive Barker Never heard of him before? Well that’s probably because he hasn’t done anything. Hellraiser was his first full length feature film. And after it, he only directed another two no name films. I can only conjecture that his real passion was writing since his name only pops up on Hellraiser sequels or other flop horror movies. But personally, I’d be happy with Hellraiser as my anchor. The movie was scripted by Barker, based off a book that Barker wrote, “The Hellbound Heart”. Now I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece of historical writing (some of the lines are so cheesy they could spread them on crackers). What I’m saying is that clearly Barker had complete creative control of this movie and was able to make it into exactly what he wanted. And what he wanted was gore.
The Glorious Gore
Hellraiser had a production budget of about $1,000,000 when other horror contemporaries, Evil Dead II and Nightmare on Elmstreet III, were budgeted at around 3.6 and 4.5 million respectively. The point being that Barker was able to create a movie just as realistic and gory as any other horror movie of it’s day. And all of that with maybe a third of the budget of its contemporaries. To be honest, I’m a fan of pre CGI effects in horror movies. Maybe growing up with the continual development of digital art has jaded me. Blood splatter from a green screen will never look as real as red corn syrup. And this movie has some amazing, realistic gore to it. The skinless suites Frank wears are amazing. They show detailed anatomy of the face, neck and hands. The decomposed version of Frank crawling on the floor definitely made me jump. The models and reverse filming used in Frank’s resurrection are beautiful. It is not often a director will put his makeup and models under bright lights for long interrupted shots. It really speaks to the confidence Barker had in his work.
The Cenobites were perfectly creepy. When The Teeth Cenobite sticks his fingers in Kirsty’s mouth, I started gagging myself. Personally I thought Pinhead was the least interesting of the bunch, but the makeup on all of them was incredible.But the crowning jewel of the movie is of course, the hooks. Maybe it has something to do with my fear of needles, but those hooks make me shiver. Apparently the favorite pastime of the Cenobites is to cover people’s bodies with fishing hooks. All these hooks are attached to chains leading off into the ether. This is seen in the climax of the movie as Frank is covered in hooks, all taught and ready to pull. He is then ripped apart, in every direction, into little pieces. It is horrible. Horrible in the way that makes you rewind and watch it again and again.
Why I liked it
Horror is such a hard genre to write for because we expect so much from it. It’s not enough to just sit and watch a movie and have whatever feelings come of it. We watch horror to be frightened. The reason horror writers and directors are so amazing is because they create a narrative to hold our attention while they sneak up behind us and scare us. The narrative in this film comes up a couple of different themes.
Sexuality / Lust
I know. But just because it’s obvious doesn't mean I shouldn't mention it. Frank is the epitome of carnal desires, and Julia is his convert. This movie shows dangers of lust and selfish desires. Frank clearly traveled the world seeking out new and darker gratification. Never satisfied his passions grew more twisted and perverse. Eventually he found the ultimate sadomasochism with the Cenobites, who blurred the line between pleasure and pain. It leads to his destruction (twice) as well as Julia’s. She started in adultery and ended a murderous servant to her lover.Religion and Spirituality.
Some people like to draw a connection between the few religious homages in the movie. There are Catholic Saint Statues, the famous line “devils to some, angels to others” by the Cenobites, and of course Franks’ last line quoting “Jesus Wept”. Personally I think it’s just pulling at straws. In thinking about that last line, I bet Barker would invoke Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction when he said, “I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass.” Barker probably just needed something dramatic for Frank’s last line.
The questions raised about this magic, inter-dimensional wooden box are all left as questions. A narrative of the box and it’s origins are the setting for the Hellraiser sequels, but in this movie, just try not to think about it.
With the exceptions of a few moments, there aren't many jump-scares. There is that one weird wall walking monster, but other than that the fear is situational. There isn't a Michael Myers to jump up from behind the couch, and that’s ok. Sometimes the slow building anxiety is enough. I mean, Frank cutting a rat open while Julia and her husband make love. Ughhh, that’s creepy. The Cenobite with the teeth, just chattering his massive incisors is enough to give me the shivers. Gore, such as hooks ripping apart flesh, easily creates disgust, but that disgusts gives place to general anxiety. Anxiety can be just as powerful as out and out horror, and the unsettling scenarios and scenes created in this movie are enough to make me feel scared.
And here is the moment you’ve been waiting for....
SPOILER FREE REVIEW
Hellraiser is an eery and graphic movie about the cost of lust and selfish desires. As innocent blood flows to bring a women and dead lover together again, unworldly forces seek their vengeance. Hellraiser easily earn’s it place as a horror classic by creating an anxiety and discomfort that sticks with the viewer long after the credits roll. With some of the greatest pre-CGI effects I’ve ever seen, this movie will make you wince and cringe in all the right ways. This movie is great. Hold onto your skin and mind the hooks.
Final Grade: B