Hellraiser is the 1987 classic which introduced the world to the Cenobites, a particularly creepy breed of demon that can be summoned from Hell by opening a puzzle box. Once summoned, they take the person who has called them back with them, proceeding to torture them through all of eternity.
This movie is an important one in horror history. The Cenobite leader Pinhead is now one of the most iconic horror villains of all time, the obsession with the character leading to ten films in total being made in this franchise; the latest was a direct to DVD release just last year. In addition, this film marked the introduction of Clive Barker’s work into mainstream Hollywood. He had directed other work prior to this one, but Hellraiser captured the public’s attention in a way that his prior work had not managed to. Based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart, movie-goers were introduced to the dark heart that is Barker’s world, and a fascination with Hell, portals, underworlds and demons was born.
What separates Hellraiser from a tales of Devil worship, Satanism, and ritual sacrifice is that it is a much more human story. The Cenobites introduction into the world of the characters that we meet is a direct result of greed, and the human desire to press the button when literally EVERYONE says “Don’t press the button!” It’s how we learn that the stove is hot to touch; our mom told us about a million times, but it was only until we touched it that we understood what she meant.
Despite the fact that the movie is over thirty years old, Hellraiser still has the ability to make audiences squirm today. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in years, dust it off and give it another try, because the content is still fairly shocking today. In Hellraiser, Frank, the scoundrel brother of Larry, lives a life in pursuit of physical pleasure. His tries progressively kinkier sex, but nothing satisfies him. When he finds the puzzle box, he takes it and unlocks it in the pursuit of “painful pleasure.” He gets more than he bargained for in the Cenobites, and he manages to give them the slip. When Larry cuts his hand during a move and bleeds on the attic floor, Frank’s soul absorbs the blood, and begins regenerating his body. Julia finds the crawling, oozing skeleton in the attic, and he tells her that she has to help him. Julia is obsessed with Frank, having had a passionate affair with him years before. Ashamed of her depravity, but craving more, she begins luring men home while her husband is at work, murdering them in the attic to help rebuild Frank.
The makeup effects here hold up, with Frank becoming progressively more formed with each murder. The fact that there is a skinless man wandering around above their heads that people in the household are just unaware of is pretty unnerving. In fact, this entire movie seems built to make the audience uncomfortable, which really is the hallmark of an effective horror film. From the ick factor of Frank’s appearance, to the disgusting way he tells his own niece to “Come to Daddy,” to Julia’s increased acceptance of the fact that she has become a murderer, the story leaves you a little breathless as you try to figure out where it is going.
Hellraiser is very much rooted in sex and sexual oppression. The fact that Julia is happily married has nothing to do with the fact that she wants to sleep with Frank. It is clear that she has a happy life, she is just not happy in it. She cares for her husband, talking Frank out of just heading downstairs and killing him several times throughout the film. However, she is not getting what she needs out of her marriage. She strays toward Frank in the first place because he is dark and passionate, and she hides that part of herself that wants to explore sexually. The film explores some pretty dark sexual themes, especially surrounding sadomasochism.
One thing that really surprised me about the film after watching it for the first time in years is the fact that my memory of Pinhead overshadowed the amazing performance of Clare Higgins in this film. Pinhead only appears for a very short time – I’m guessing about twenty minutes of screen time at most. His performance is great, and, along with his iconic makeup, does make him a memorable character. It isn’t surprising that audiences wanted to explore more about him. However, to me the standout performance is Clare Higgins as Julia. Watching her character evolve as she accepts what kind of person that she really is is incredible to see. I wouldn’t say that I sympathize with her, because she is pretty awful, but you are essentially watching a housewife transform into a cold-blooded murderer in less than two hours, and it is very believable. There is no point where you think that she is blinded by her passion for him. Her choices, no matter how objectionable, are her own. She struggles with her choices, and when she makes the choice to murder, she owns it. It is full-on who she has decided to become. She opens herself up to her dark side, and the result is a transformation on par with Black Swan. This is not an easy thing to pull off, and she makes it look almost effortless.
Hellraiser is an important 80s horror film, not only because it contributed Pinhead to the horror community, but because it so clearly influenced some of the more popular films of the next decade. As more and more films began to explore visiting Hell and the underworld, the focus began to shift from exploring Hell as a consequence of human actions to exploring what happens after. Many 90s films began exploring the actual landscape of Hell, from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and even the 90s sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II. It opened the door, so to speak, that piqued the audience’s interest in where these demonic creatures actually come from. For a journey into the hell that is the human heart, dive into Hellraiser to see what started it all.