Dir. Clive Barker
When Larry Cotton moves back to his long-abandoned family home, his new wife Julia discovers the eviscerated remains of his brother Frank, her former lover, in the attic. Having solved a bizarre puzzle box, Frank lost his earthly body to a group of sadomasochistic demons, Cenobites, but is resurrected by a drop of blood on the attic floor. He soon convinces ex-lover Julia to bring him human sacrifices to help him regain his body and escape the clutches of the Cenobites… Into this deadly fray wanders Kirsty, Larry’s headstrong daughter, and the only one who is able to prevent her diabolical family from achieving their gruesome goals.
The prime, albeit declining trend in horror in the mid to late Eighties, was the slasher movie. Countless titles featuring nubile teens getting murderlised by hulking, masked psychopaths in isolated locations cluttered cinemas and video shelves alike. When Barker’s hellish vision was unleashed however, it towered over its peers, with its graphic adult content, groundbreaking sadistic imagery, and darkly sexual themes. Based upon Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser was described by the author as ‘hard-core horror fiction.’ As Jim Reader points out in Exquisite Terror 2, it is a style of writing that ‘favours graphic depictions of violence and musings concerning the depravity of human nature over character development and experimental literary techniques.’ Faithfully adapted for the screen by Barker himself, Hellraiser was quite unlike anything audiences had seen before. A Faustian tale of one who sells his soul and body to experience untold pleasures, it combines elements of Splatterpunk, the Gothic, and the yet to be defined approach to horror now known as 'torture porn.' There are also nods to the work of HP Lovecraft with the concept of unknowable dimensions full of incomprehensible beings and experiences existing just beyond our realms of earthly perception. Horror fantasy has rarely been darker, and here the presentation of violence and pain is highly forensic in nature, arguably establishing Hellraiser as a forerunner of torture-porn. Typical of Barker’s work, it explores sexual themes such as the sanguine line straddling pain and pleasure, and mans’ slavery to base urges and primitive, wanton cravings.
Moments in, and already Hellraiser has established its transgressive and extreme brand of horror as we witness the bloody evisceration-by-chains of a semi-naked man playing with a puzzle box. Entrails, flesh hanging from hooks and glimpses of the Cenobites bleed into the main narrative which focuses on a dysfunctional family (the breakdown of the traditional family unit is a recurring theme of Barker’s work) who have moved to England to start afresh. Tension is already apparent between Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins), and flashbacks quickly reveal her infidelity and morbid relationship with Frank (Sean Chapman). Deliberate editing mingles Julia and Frank climaxing in a twisted sex scene with Larry tearing open his hand on a rusty nail, spilling blood everywhere and solidifying Barker’s idea of sex and pain, blood and sexual secretions overlapping in hellish domains. Julia uses her sexual prowess to secure her wants and needs, all the while seeming to relish the temptation she experiences when Frank compels her not to look at him as he feeds on the bodies of sex-starved businessmen she offers him. The film’s adult tone is further enhanced by Christopher Young’s doomful, Gothic score.*
The story unfolds amidst grimy settings - a mouldering attic room, a neglected and damp suburban home cluttered with all manner of squirming vermin - and obscure glimpses of hell; a stark labyrinthine space where monstrous beings lurk. The various religious icons which initially cluttered the Cotton residence bolster the idea of the Cenobites as near-theistic agents. The unholy sight of the Cenobites adds to the film’s ability to unsettle and repel. Explorers in the further regions of experience - “Angels to some, demons to others” - their flesh is warped and modified in the most fiendish ways. Decked out in leather bondage gear, they are Monastic in their reverence to pain. While the strikingly imposing figure of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) is now iconic, here he is no more prominent than the other Cenobites. Their visage pays morbid homage to various forms of subculture such as body-modification and extreme S&M fetishism. Elsewhere impressive special effects depict Frank’s skinless, glistening form, his fleshless resurrection, and his eventual demise whereby he is torn asunder by piercing hooks and chains, but not before he hisses ‘Jesus Wept’ further highlighting the bizarre theistical subtext.
When one thinks about the term ‘Horror’ and what it literally means, Hellraiser is surely one of the most powerful horror films ever produced. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘horror’ is defined as ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust’ – the prominent emotions it refers to centre around revulsion; gut reactions to visceral information. When applied to cinema, it opens up the general concept of horror and presents varying approaches used to unsettle audiences. In the 1940s Val Lewton actually went as far as referring to the films he produced as ‘terror’ films, or ‘chillers’, because his was a desire to terrify. Compare this approach to that of filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci and his squelchy cinematic offerings and the difference between ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ becomes clearer still. Stephen King also discusses this difference between ‘horror’ (revulsion, disgust) and ‘terror’ (extreme fear) in his mammoth love letter/appreciation/meditation on the genre, Danse Macabre. When applying these theories to Barker’s Hellraiser, it’s safe to say that this is a film (indeed, a franchise) firmly rooted in ‘horror’; and these are the reactions Barker masterfully provokes from his audience. Disgusting imagery that repels is rife throughout Hellraiser, though Barker also proves he is able to conjure moments of macabre beauty such as the scene depicting Kirsty’s (Ashley Laurence) nightmare, in which she discovers a heavily bleeding body beneath a burial shroud amidst a flurry of white feathers.
Barker’s directorial debut is a grim and unrelenting exploration of unsettling themes. A truly visceral, sanguine horror, it remains as powerful today as when it was first unleashed, and still marks the writer/director as a truly singular figure in horror culture.
*Interestingly, Barker had originally commissioned British Industrial outfit Coil to score Hellraiser. Read more about (and listen to a couple of) their 'bowel-churning' but "not-quite-commercial-enough" offerings over at Paracinema.