Throughout my years of watching horror movies I’ve learned a few important rules. If it is a slasher, I will probably love it. If it is an 80’s slasher, I will definitely love it. If it is an 80’s slasher featuring a great Final Girl, it will probably be on my all time favorite horror list. What does all of this have to do with tonight’s film? Everything and nothing at all. Today I will be looking at the Clive Barker tale from 1987 entitled “Hellraiser.” Love Barker or hate him, all bets are off when you are watching one of his films. Remember that rule about the Final Girl? Good, because it is going to come into play later on in this film. You ready to dig into this gory smorgasbord of carnal delights? I know I am.
As “Hellraiser” begins we Frank as he buys an antique puzzle box from a dealer. Back in the attic of his house in London, Frank solves the puzzle box, prompting hooked chains to emerge from it and tear deep into his flesh. Horribly mutilated humanoids appear and attack Frank with hooked chains, tearing him into fleshy pieces. Their leader (Doug Bradley), picks up the box and twists it back into its original state, taking Frank’s dissected physical remains back to their realm with them and restoring the room to normal.
Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (sweaty, nasty, and disgustingly played by Andrew Robinson) arrives at the house along with his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who previously had an affair with Frank. Higgins is perfect as the diabolical Julia, an ice queen that we rarely see in horror movies today. There is just something so deliciously English about her that makes her all the more evil. Anyway, the pair know Frank as an avowed hedonist and petty criminal, and, presuming that he is in jail in some exotic location, decide to move in. Larry’s teenage daughter, Kirsty Cotton (a very beautiful and not quite as innocent as she appears Ashley Laurence), chooses not to live with her stepmother and moves into her own place. While moving into the house, Larry cuts his hand on a nail, and drips blood on the attic floor. The blood somehow reaches Frank in his prison in the humanoids’ realm, partially restoring his body and allowing him to escape to the attic.
That night, Julia finds “Frank” in the attic; still obsessed with him after their affair, she agrees to harvest blood for him so that he can fully restore his body and they can run away together. The next day, Julia begins picking up men in bars and bringing them back to the house, where she murders them with a hammer; Frank then consumes their blood and internal organs, progressively regenerating his own body. Once he has regained enough strength, Frank explains to Julia that he had exhausted all sensory experiences and sought out the puzzle box on the promise that it would open a portal to a realm of new carnal pleasures. Instead, it opened up a portal to the realm of the “Cenobites,” who have since taken Frank as their prisoner and subjected him to extreme, sadomasochistic torture. The fun has only just begun….
This film is nasty, repulsive, and quite disturbing. I remember the late Gene Siskel reviewing this film on At the Movies saying the film should have been titled “Skinned Alive” because there is so much bare, naked, tender yet bloody flesh on display. He has a point. For all this film’s disgusting pleasures, it is rarely actually scary. It is more gross than anything else and gross will only take you so far in a horror movie. I admire Barker’s go-for-broke attitude but I wish he developed his “one man’s pain is a another man’s pleasure” theory a bit more thoroughly. For all it’s fans, of which I know there are many, I’ve just never quite understood the appeal of this film. The special effects are great, Laurence makes for an excellent Final Girl with shades of Heather Langenkamp about her, but it never really all adds up to very much.