Clive Barker’s Hellraiser belongs in a special collection of body horror films alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing. What it shares with these great films is a dazzling capacity to simultaneously disgust and enthrall the viewer with the spectacle of gore. While the average gore flick merely seeks to horrify the viewer with gallons of blood or tearing limbs, Hellraiser aspires to something higher with its gore. Here, a body being ripped to shreds by spectral chains or a skeleton reanimating itself is not only disturbing, but also fascinating—maybe even beautiful. Hellraiser is easily one of the grossest films ever made, but there’s such an uncanny craft to its special effects, it leaves you wanting to see more blood spilled, not less.
Hellraiser starts in Morocco, where Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) buys an exotic puzzle box from a merchant. He opens the box in the attic of his childhood home back in the States, whereupon chains appear out of thin air, hook his flesh, and rip him apart. A robed figure appears from the shadows, collects the box, returns the room to normal, and disappears. Soon enough, Frank’s brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and his new wife Julia (Clare) move into the house. Larry accidentally cuts his thumb in the move and a drop of blood spilled onto the attic floor brings Frank back to life, but there’s a catch. Frank’s resurrected body is not whole. He’s only a stunted skeleton with some tissue growth on his limbs. He needs tissue to reanimate his body, and he commissions Julia, whom he had an affair with in life, to collect it for her, luring unsuspecting men into the attic of the home where Frank can consume their flesh and rebuild himself, layer upon layer.
Hellraiser is a film consumed by physicality and the link between pain and pleasure. Barker is not subtle in his themes. Most every scene explores a connection between violence and sex. Flashbacks showing the passionate tryst between Frank and Julia play like something out of a low-rent porno, the lens smeared with vaseline, their passion for each other awkward and clumsy—both in their actions and the filmmaking. Intercutting these glimpses with scenes of Frank, nothing more than a few layers of central nervous system layered onto brittle bones, goading Julia into helping him regain his flesh so they can continue their passionate affair hits home the thematic point, and then some.
But it’s also fitting that the film’s obsession with pain and pleasure plays into the viewer’s experience as the film’s greatest pleasure lie in its depictions of pain. The creative centrepiece of the film is Frank’s initial resurrection after blood from Larry’s thumb soaks into the floorboards of the empty attic. After Larry and Julia leave to attend to the cut, the blood on the floor starts bubbling and pussing. White, spunky sludge starts to boil over and bones start assembling themselves out of the reaction. It’s revolting, but absolutely riveting. The fleshiness of the special effects, made practically through models and extensive latex prosthetics, bewitches the viewer in the midst of disgust.
This scene, along with those involving Pinhead, the iconic robed villain of the franchise, lend Hellraiser its uncanny appeal. Pinhead and his sadomasochistic cenobites exist to torture those who can open the puzzle box. Barker does little to explicate their motivations or the nature of their existence, beyond their fascination with pain and their evident pleasure in the torture of human beings. Their presence lends the film supernatural portent, but they’re not frightening. They’re bizarre creations, injecting a bit of perversity—black comedy even—into the proceedings, almost akin to Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice. They occupy that same imaginative space between nightmare and acid trip.
Hellraiser isn’t particularly scary, nor high minded. It’s a B-movie, with some shoddy performances and heavy-handed thematics. But when it comes to its gory special effects, it’s also a work of art.
7 out of 10
Hellraiser (1987, UK)
Written and directed by Clive Barker; starring Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Doug Bradley, Oliver Smith.