Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser first published by Movie Gazette

At its best, horror is one of the most subversive and confronting of film genres, able to tap into our deepest reservoirs of fear and anxiety and bring them oozing to the surface. Yet in the deeply conservative period of the mid to late eighties, horror’s well risked running bone-dry, as Hollywood proved unwilling, or unable, to break free of its own tired formulae, bombarding viewers with an endless succession of slashers, sequels and diminishing returns. In a little under ten years there were four inferior follow-ups to A Nightmare on Elm Street, a staggering seven sequels to Friday the 13th – and many other horror directors seemed to be just going through the motions, slavishly mimicking these long-expired franchises for all that they were (or, more to the point, were not) worth.

Yet just when the world of horror had become oversaturated with moronically buff teen victims, unstoppable heavy-breathing killers and undead paedophiles delivering sub-Schwarzenegger wisecracks, a young English novelist and director named Clive Barker came right out of left field to remind filmgoers what a scary place hell can be when presented with imagination and originality. Hellraiser, based on Barker’s own book The Hellbound Heart, was so many things at once – a haunted house movie, a sadomasochistic fairytale, a family tragedy, a gory piece of gothic – and yet it was like no other film of its decade, and touched a raw nerve with its all-new horror mythology, its elegant narrative construction, and its unabashedly dark unpleasantness. In short, it was – and remains – a classic, able to get under the skin not least because for over half the film one of the main characters has none of his own.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves back into the old family house with his frosty wife Julia (Clare Higgins) after his wayward brother Frank (Sean Chapman) has once again disappeared from the scene – but far from merely skipping town, this time Frank has opened the gates of hell with a mysterious box, and his soul has been taken to the outer limits of pleasure and pain. After Larry’s hand is injured while moving furniture, a splash of his blood revives what remains of Frank’s body, buried under the floorboards. Desperate to reform himself bodily (if not morally) with more blood, the skeletal Frank enlists the help of Julia, with whom he had once had a passionate affair, and she is soon enticing strangers into the house for him to suck dry. Yet when Frank’s attention is attracted by Larry’s pretty daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), she is forced to cut a dangerous deal with the infernal Cenobites, once-human infernal guardians who want their escaped ward back and will raise hell to get him.

Full of images that instantly entered the nightmares of the collective unconscious – the puzzle box that opens a path to eternally exquisite torment, Frank’s body rebuilding itself sinew by bloody sinew, and the Cenobites themselves with their radically pierced and surgically altered bodies (including their iconic and eloquent leader, played by Doug Bradley and dubbed Pinhead the film’s many sequels) – Hellraiser is a horror film not to be missed, even if some may find the exotic pleasures which it offers to be cruel torture.

“This isn’t for your eyes,” says the demonic Pinhead – but he is so very wrong about Clive Barker’s must-see horror.

© Anton Bitel