Hellraiser (1987)

Written and directed by Clive Barker

Sometimes a film knows its strengths and doubles down on them, disregarding everything else and still comes out everlasting. Hellraiser is one of those films. Featuring C-list performances, B-list writing, A-list special effects and god-tier vision, the power of Clive Barker’s universe spawned a slew of sequels and is up for a reboot, and it’s easy to see why. 

Frank (Sean Chapman) is hellbent on pleasure. He seeks it above all else, and in his horndog folly, he buys a contraption that’s meant to unleash every sensuous and physical delight imaginable – a little box of pleasures, if you will. Rushing home and setting the mood with candles, he triggers it, and summons sadomasochistic demons who rip him to pieces, and drag his soul down with them into the underworld. Hot. 

Later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Claire Higgins) show up at the house, having just moved back to England from Brooklyn. Larry’s keen to make a fresh start at the rundown squatter’s nest the family home has turned into, while Julia’s less enthused. That is, until they spot Frank’s belongings, among them some nudes featuring Frank and his past partners, triggering some sordid memories in Julia, memories that might explain her lukewarm commitment to Larry and the life they’re meant to rebuild…

When she then discovers the mangled remains of Frank, who’s somehow still alive but insistent the blood of innocent strangers will restore him to his former glory, she has to decide how far she’ll go for lust, and what she’ll do in getting there. 

Hellraiser is begging for a big-budget remake and it wouldn’t be totally amiss if it was a porn parody. Sex is the impetus, fabric and consequence of Barker’s story and for him to make due with some smoldering looks and scant nudity is like settling for a crackling fireplace when what you should be doing is committing arson. Hellraiser is about carnal desire, for better or worse (mostly worse) so why not let ‘er rip? The gore and violence on display would never make this a retiree matinee favorite, anyway. 

Hellraiser is remarkable in how it’s totally negligible for 90% of its runtime and then awe-inspiring for the rest. The Cenobites, the underworld beings who bring the pain, are so fully-formed and iconic that they feel they belong to another cinematic universe, to not speak of another film. They look every bit as terrifying today, and that’s to the credit of Bob Keen, Geoffrey Portas who led the makeup design, and Jane Wildgoose, who designed their costumes. 

Their efforts combined make fetish night at your local sex club look like a school dance at a catholic middle school, and the special effects work stands (severed) head and shoulders above the rest of the production. To the detriment of the film as a whole? Perhaps. Worth it? Definitely. 

What you’re left with is a piece of horror movie history that’s worth seeking out to witness a standout piece of technical work, an auspicious genre exercise that’s redeemed by the work behind the camera, and honestly, unless  David Bruckner’s coming relaunch does it justice, maybe a design museum is where the true legacy of Hellraiser ought to be preserved for posterity. 

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