When it comes to horror icons, Pinhead may very well come in at the bottom of the list when it comes to the opinion of most people. For some bizarre reason, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees all seem to be more revered and recognizable than poor old Pinhead. As recognizable as all of those may be however, outside of Myers first starring role in the original Halloween, Pinhead’s first appearance in Hellraiser is the best overall film of the bunch. Hellraiser is an incredibly unique and effective horror film that stands as one of the true classics of the genre.
Larry (Andrew Robinson), along with his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins), moves into an old house to be closer to his daughter Kristy (Ashley Laurence). Julia is none too happy about moving into the rundown house, but is somewhat more accepting once she learns that the house was once owned by Larry’s brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who she had an affair with in the past, and has gone missing some months ago. What they don’t know is that Frank is dead, a victim of a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, which he obtained from a mysterious man in the Middle East. The box, once solved and opened, summoned demons called the Cenobites that allowed Frank to experience all of the pain and pleasure he could have ever desired, but pays with his soul. What they also don’t know is that this happened in the house they’ve just moved into.
While moving a mattress upstairs, Larry is cut by a nail jutting from a wall. He finds Julia in a barren, upstairs room, dripping blood all the way. Larry is too consumed with having his wound tended to that he doesn’t question why Julia is in the room; she’s reminiscing about her time with Frank, and wondering what could have been. Julia doesn’t realize that the room she’s been drawn to is the room where Frank was killed, nor does she realize than a remnant of him is still under the floorboards…and that Larry’s spilt blood has just sparked his resurrection.
Julia stumbles onto Frank, now only rotting muscle and tendon, and while she’s initially frightened, is quickly coerced into luring men to the room so Frank can gain back his strength and become the man he once was. Julia’s sudden bizarre behavior causes Kristie to become suspicious of her, and soon she’s pulled into the twisted affair. But the trouble is only beginning…when Frank opened the Lament Configuration, he became a slave to the Cenobites. And they don’t take very kindly to being disobeyed.
Leave it to Clive Barker, who I personally feel is nothing short of a genius, to give 80’s horror a true kick in the ass and create something that altogether shunned convention. At the time, the horror scene was filled with films content to sway over the line into the realm of comedy, teenagers being sliced-and-diced by slowly stalking madmen, and parties-turned-massacres. I don’t believe many were prepared for what Mr. Barker served up with Hellraiser, but I’m sure most of them were quite pleased with it. The film is considered a classic for a reason.
First off, the film was extremely original and fresh for its time. The themes of sadomasochism the film plays with were surely quite shocking to see in a mainstream horror film. Equally shocking to first-time viewers was likely the fact that the monstrosities in the trailer and on the posters weren’t actually the creatures we were supposed to be afraid of; in reality, they’re hardly in the film (which could very well be the reason why Pinhead isn’t at the top of the horror icon heap). No, the real villain of this piece is good-old brother Frank. Playing much like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the wicked stepmother Julia, and her rather easy slip into the clutches of evil, shows just how effective Frank’s powers of corruption are. Either that, or he’s a hell of a good lay; just one romp in the sack years ago was apparently more than enough for Julia to do his dirty work, whether he has skin or not.
Speaking of Julia, she’s nearly as villainous as Frank; arguably more-so. While Frank didn’t exactly seem like a wonderful human being while his heart was still beating, he is a skinless abomination now, so who can blame him for his sinful ways? Julia is easily manipulated into doing Frank’s bidding, and her feelings on her current familial situation are easily to blame. Her taste for the good life seems woefully opposite of her husband Larry’s down-to-earth personality and lifestyle, yet Larry seems absolutely oblivious to the fact. Her relationship with Kristy is a cold one, to say the least, and creates the impression that they’ve settled on merely coexisting with one another, no longer attempting to bond. Why Julia even stays in the marriage is a mystery; the flashback to her one night stand with Frank and the ease at which she falls back into his (undead) arms is proof positive that she’s far from satisfied. Julia’s unhappiness is precisely the catalyst needed for the evil to reveal itself. The dysfunctional elements of the family play just as much into the horror of Hellraiser as the flesh-hooks and exposed veins and tendons do.
Another unique element of the film, which also shines a light on the quality writing, is that rather than being appalled by the hellish creatures called forth from the puzzle box, you’ll actually begin to feel something akin to sympathy for them. Just like Frank, they thought the pleasures of the Lament Configuration would bring them much happiness; alas, they’ve endured eons of torture and pain. While over the ages they may have grown to enjoy it, they’ve still become servants of Hell, always at the beck and call for anyone who summons them. Like Pinhead himself says, “We are demons to some. Angels to others.”
Hellraiser was Clive Barker’s first major directorial effort, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many flaws in his technique. Writers don’t always transition well from pen to camera (one only has to look at Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive for proof), but Barker shows much confidence. Perhaps it’s because he’s also an artist and painter, and played a key part in the design of the film. The overall look of the film is a grimy and dirty one, which fits perfectly with Hellraiser’s basic themes. The atmosphere is filled with dread, but at the same time awe and amazement. Just like the Cenobites, who are almost disgustingly beautiful, the film itself has a sense of ugly yet wonderful discovery about it, probably due to the near-flawless melding of fantasy and horror.
One of the biggest draws of the film is the make-up and FX. Even now, with film technology so advanced, I’d be awfully impressed to see Barker’s work manifest itself on screen unblemished. The fashion in which Clive describes his grotesque creations in his narratives is almost beautiful; something that is without question hard to pull off visually. Against all rational reasoning however, in 1987 it was realized quite perfectly. The Cenobites, as I mentioned earlier, have an eerie sort of sexual appeal to them; you can’t help but be intrigued by their appearances. I’m in no way saying they’re pleasing to the eye, but their designs are so outlandish and uncommon that you’ll find yourself fascinated with them instead of being repulsed. Likewise, the FX work, namely Frank’s resurrection, is incredible. The stop-motion is delightfully revolting, yet I defy anyone to tear their eyes from the screen.
Hellraiser is unquestionably one of the genuine originals from the 80’s horror scene; it’s still just as effective today as it was then. Many have played with the ideas of sexual pain and pleasure fused together with horror, yet very few have done it as well as Clive Barker has with Hellraiser (and most of his writing, for that matter). Whether you come for the sex, the bizarre, the sickening, or the Cenobites themselves, Hellraiser is a Pandora’s Box of horror excellence well worth opening.
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