Director: Clive Barker
Starring: Doug Bradley, Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Andrew Robinson, Sean Chapman, Nicholas Vince
Words – Oliver Innocent
Following in Stephen King’s footsteps and quickly rising to prominence in the mid-1980s, Clive Barker went on to become one of the most prolific, imaginative and well-known horror authors of the late 20th century.
Kicking off with Books of Blood, a collection of macabre, violent, sexually explicit tales, Barker continued to hone his skills and build his reputation with his first novel The Damnation Game and The Hellbound Heart novella, before venturing into more experimental waters with the epic fantasy-horror hybrids Weaveworld and Cabal. These stories showcased an almost unparalleled imaginative ability to conjure fantastical worlds and characters that somehow still seemed impossibly real.
However, by 1987 it became clear that Barker was not content with his creations just being confined to pen and paper. He yearned to see them in the flesh, to visualise what was once a few lines of descriptive writing. There was only one medium for it then; film.
Barker’s debut feature turned out to be one of the standout genre offerings of the 1980s; no mean feat considering it was a small independent British feature released at a time when horror cinema was dominated by hugely successful American franchises like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series. Indeed, not since the heyday of Hammer had a British horror film been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with its American counterparts, and not until the resurgence of British horror in the early 2000s with the likes of 28 Days Later and The Descent would one be able to again.
Based on The Hellbound Heart novella, a gory tale of demons, lovers brought back from the grave, and portals to another world, Hellraiser certainly ticks all the boxes to delight fans of raw, bloody, effects-laden ‘80s horror cinema. However, Barker also brings something altogether different to the table; an indelible sense of imagination coupled with a synthesis of the beautiful and the grotesque hitherto almost unheard of in a genre that was, at the time, all too susceptible to succumbing to its own clichés. Make no mistake, Hellraiser is still gory and nasty, oftentimes exceedingly so, but it stands out from the crowd with its refusal to adhere to the rules.
Brimming with imaginative touches (unsurprising if you’ve read any of Barker’s work), Hellraiser impresses with stunning imagery and lofty concepts. There’s the mind-blowing idea that another plane of existence can be reached via the exquisitely-designed Lament Configuration puzzle box (a Rubik’s Cube from hell, if you like), a place of intense pain and pleasure, hooks, chains and tearing flesh, and, of course, the iconic image of the Cenobites. Unlike nothing seen before, the Cenobites are at once elegant yet violent, magisterial yet sadistic, sexual yet monstrous. They are the perfect embodiment of the film’s amalgamation of the beautiful and the grotesque. The lead Cenobite, referred to in the sequels as Pinhead, is the image that really struck a chord with horror fans, his signature rows-of-pins-nailed-into-his-head look, and Doug Bradley’s commanding performance cementing his position as an icon of horror, just as recognisable as Freddy Krueger or Frankenstein’s Monster.
As impressive as the image of Pinhead and the Cenobites is, however, Hellraiser (at least the first film in the series that is) isn’t really about them. At its core, it’s a dark love story focusing on the twisted affair between the repressed Julia and her sexually-adventurous and quite deranged brother-in-law Frank. It’s a film about the lengths people go to for the people they love, Julia killing unwary men she has seduced in order to bring back her long lost lover with their blood. It also concerns how far people are willing to go to attain the ultimate sexual experience (pleasure and pain, indivisible) as Frank tracks down the puzzle box, enters another world, and literally gets torn apart. The real villain of the piece, Frank is a truly frightening monster, resurrected with blood in a bravura effects sequence, he returns as a skinless terror that will stop at nothing to escape the clutches of the Cenobites.
The perfect accompaniment to the film’s warped love story is Christopher Young’s stunning score which encompasses the romantic and the horrific in sweeping, orchestral gothic melodrama.
A big hit upon its initial release, Hellraiser’s reputation has only grown in the years that followed. Barker followed up his debut with the misunderstood Nightbreed and the OK Lord of Illusions, neither of which lives up to the promise of his first film. Hellraiser itself has spawned a seemingly never-ending franchise, the first few sequels showcasing some good ideas although losing the mystique of the original as they go into the Cenobite’s origins, while the later ones descend into direct-to-video hell.
You can’t go wrong with the original though, a proper blood and guts horror film which, due to Barker’s ability to distil his fertile imagination into a compelling storyline, still impresses over 30 years later.