(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)
Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.
Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.
After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.
And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.
While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.
Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.
I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”
Final Score: B