We start our Hellraiser series with the first of the franchise, the rest of the reviews will be split into two or so films at a time. But the first (and best) Hellraiser deserves its own singular review.
Clive Barker created an unrelentingly dark film in Hellraiser and one that the genre would feel the effects of for decades after.
Frank (Sean Chapman) has titillation for the macabre and is continually pushing the limits of his sexual pleasures. When he goes one step too far and gets more than he bargained for. Years later his older brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) (who by chance had an affair with Frank before he went missing) move into his old home with Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). Soon after Frank begins to appear to Julia in ways that no one would expect.
When Larry accidentally cuts his hand. For some reason an insane amount of blood falls onto and through the floorboards. When moving it awakens Frank who has been kept in a hellish dimension by creatures called Cenobites. Though, Frank is not returning in his proper human form. He requires blood and flesh to grow back and when a terrified Julia finds him, he persuades her to help him with unsuspecting men. He needs to get back to human form so he can stay free from the Cenobites. These beings appear to very much enjoy taking you apart and putting you back together one tiny piece at a time for eternity.
This part of the film takes a little longer to get going but once we do, the film positively flies at a rate of knots. Although we have beings that love to torture humans, Frank is the true villain. He hasn’t changed since escaping what he has and if anything feels empowered by it and has “free reign” to do what he wants and to whom he wants. As an audience you want him to get his comeuppance.
Julia on the other hand is more complicated. She feels for the more masculine brother and has kept those feelings long after. Julia is a villain, but one that has been forced into having no other options. She has fallen out of love for Larry and wants Frank, so when given the option of the two, it is obvious who she would pick. She also wants to save Frank. Why else would she do what she does in the opening half? It is not because she is a vile person she has just been pushed into a corner and is doing what is best for her to survive. It is only when her attention and jealousy turns to Kirsty is when her villainous ways come to the fore.
Clive Barker was able to do what many of his associates couldn’t helm one of his novels and do so to a great level of success. Who better to know and work his words than the man himself, it makes perfect sense, yet at the time was seen as quite the risk. What is great is how the story holds up. Sadly a lot of the effects do not. Though Frank’s prosthetics from when he is almost human is still quite sensational. The same is said for the cenobites who have not changed in subsequent sequels.
What makes Hellraiser stand out from its horror contemporaries of the time is how straight it plays everything, it doesn’t go for the jokes, it wants you to think that this is an utter nightmare for all involved and no levity is required. It cannot be underestimated how different Hellraiser was to the typical slashers of its time, this didn’t feel like horror for a young adult audience. It seemed very much targeted towards the over 30 crowds. Those who had lived a bit and experienced life. There is zero messing about in this film and Barker didn’t seem to care.
You always remember the first time you watch a horror classic and my first viewing of Hellraiser. I was of an age that was way too young and although I was horrified as any adolescent would be. But I was also left with my jaw on the floor. What had I seen and why did I want to watch it again? From the second the hooks come flying out of that Lament Configuration it had me. Not since the facehugger coming out of the egg in Alien have I been as surprised about something coming out of another object.
While the Cenobites are merely bit-part players they help form the point of the film. Hellraiser is all about desire. Franks desire to push the limits of what is moral. Julia’s desire to have a man who makes her feel alive. We mostly see the predatory actions of men. Frank of course is our prime example. But we also get to see how all the movers act around Julia and Kirsty. Even worse we see how easy it is for Julia to trick men into the house to feed Frank. Men are horrible and Barker at no point lets us forget this fact.
Even our protagonist Kirsty has desires. They are only separate in that her desires are for revenge on what Frank has done to her father. It is this that saves her, as she is a great tout to Pinhead and his crew. This is how Hellraiser should work in future films. It should be themed to something and allow the hellscape to be the comeuppance to our villains’ actions.
Hellraiser is an amazing piece of horror and Barker created characters that would go on to influence a large number of horror films that would focus more on darker tones that would grasp audiences attention in future years than the standard slasher sequel.
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