Happy Halloween my monstrous little shits. I’ll tell you straight, deciding on whether I should review something classically scary-spectacular or just plain puss filled cancerous bollocks was as irritating as a smile on a snotty child. This is the horror genre after all, a label I can claim to love as much as I want, but can’t deny that the greater quantity of atrocities-to-cinema it has under its belt (and stuffed down the front of its trousers) tend to provide the more popular brand of entertainment in reviews; like a deadpan analysis of Manos or something. What can I say? When horror fails – comedy becomes its backup plan. In the end I settled on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser because it is both satisfyingly good enough for celebration, and utterly insane enough to be just as fun as any hilariously terrible waste of life.
I love Clive Barker, he’s a fascinating and uniquely diverse artist – so broad in his abilities and multi-media dexterity that his lack of equal cultural standing to someone like Stephen King (no offence) makes me want to throw up my own lungs, liver and anything else I can live without. I love his Books Of Blood, I’m a big fan of Abarat, his paintings give my imagination a jealous hump; I even enjoyed his video game, Jericho. And you know what? I have a real soft spot for his lesser known directorial efforts as well (all two of them anyway – Nightbreed and Lord Of Illusions).
That being said, most outside adaptations of his work have fallen about as flat as an anorexic pancake. I mean Candyman is great but Midnight Meat Train was underwhelming, Dread just pissed me off and Rawhead Rex is one of the worst films ever made. But hey, we’ll put those down to the fault of literally anyone else because Clive is a horror warlord I secretly wish was my husband. Hellraiser is an ugly and utterly nauseating hook, hammer and nail fetishist’s waterfall of a wet dream, what Roger Ebert called a “bankruptcy of imagination”, that I enjoy watching very much… no, not because I’m a… anyway –
Frank Cotton, a hedonistic party animal keen on the fast life, has exhausted all of the world’s pleasures and is out for a new experience. He buys a mysterious puzzle box from a little old man in Morocco, opens it and summons the Cenobites; demonic leather priests from hell with a passion for BDSM and self-mutilation. They tear his body to pieces and subject his soul to sadomasochism so extreme it needs its own plain of existence; bad luck because it’s for the rest of all eternity apparently. Some time later, his brother, Larry, brings his second wife (who once had an affair with Frank – oh dear!) to the house in which Frank first opened the box; Larry cuts his hand while moving furniture and the blood that drips to the floor brings Frank back to life.
The wife finds him in the attic as a fleshless skeletal mass of mummified grotesquery and, still being deeply infatuated with him, agrees to procure men for him to suck dry like a vampire and slowly regenerate a new body – true lust at its finest. All goes violently well until, as you can imagine, the Cenobites wise up and discover he gave them the slip, uh oh! Frank’s niece, Kirsty, herself opens the box and, aware of what her uncle and stepmom are up to, agrees to show the hell bound monstrosities to Frank if they agree to let her go. Clive Barker set about Hellraiser with the intention of telling previous terrible adaptations of his work, including the aforementioned Rawhead Rex, to go suck Pinhead’s prickly dick, and what he achieved is a highly entertaining exercise in yucky 80’s camp.
If you’ve never seen Hellraiser but have spotted the poster/DVD cover here and there, you might be disappointed to find that the dead-white face of angry tooth decay covered in nails, known as Pinhead, has less screen time than there are horny dogs with a sense of personal space. He’s certainly a presence but the film isn’t about him or his cronies, it’s about the murderous affair and the amassing of victims for Frank to devour and become human again. While it isn’t without its healthy splatter of body parts having a bad day with a wood chipper, it’s not as concerned with that jazz as it is with the building and examination of the unfaithful wife character, Julia; played by the methodical and often menacing Claire Higgins.
It’s a much more character driven story than its reputation would suggest. Not unlike the original Friday 13th, the legend and popularity of the film’s most well known asset does it a major disservice in hindsight. Now, if I say that the film is gross and horrible, I don’t mean it’s a full speed ahead gore shower from beginning to end – it isn’t; it’s just that the film’s overall aesthetic is one of good old fashioned unpleasantness. We’re treated to detailed images of rotten food crawling with bugs, old damped floorboards, a bearded homeless man helping himself to handfuls of crickets and a magnificently sludgy triumph of practical effects as the skeleton of Frank Cotton emerges from his brother’s blood; the film’s yuck factor comes from its visual personality – not its bloody content.
Speaking of that visual personality, I do enjoy the hazy lighting and the imagination that went into the film’s afforded moments of abstract craziness an awful lot – the weird stuff; that’s what I’m in for. The Cenobites themselves are also totally cool, stealing the show at gunpoint (or rather “pinpoint”) every time they show up to violate my dreams. I mean if I saw any of these ugly SOB’s coming after me in the dark with a hard on for my yet unhooked flesh I’d probably shit my ancestor’s pants. Special mention to the hospital scene in which Kirsty opens the box and summons them up; great line delivery from Doug Bradley and I especially have to give credit to Ashley Laurence for giving the film’s most believable and sympathetic performance.
“We are explorers, from the further region of experience, demons to some; *angels to others!” Christ, Pinhead’s lines are cool!
And now that I’ve extemporised on the performances, this is where I must segway into my issues with the film. Don’t forget I do like Hellraiser, it’s got a freaky atmosphere, great makeup/creature design, a good use of imagination for all things magically evil, an interesting story that examines loyalty and faithfulness; and if nothing else – a nice campy tone that allows the film to get away with being knowingly silly whenever it wants. However, as generous as the campiness can be, it also overdoses on it from time to time and sucker punches the movie into hammy territory; Julia’s flashbacks to her affair with Frank being the worst offenders.
Not to exaggerate but they did put me in mind of a 70’s porn flick; actually it’s uncanny. It’s like everyone’s going for it with just a little too much gusto and lose their balance as a result; leaving me with difficulty “buying” it. And the animatronics on a monster called the Engineer haven’t exactly aged… fantastically. They’re ok but shots of Kirsty fighting it over the puzzle box tend to incite more laughter than tension. Clive has admitted he entered production with no real knowledge as to how one actually directs a motion picture, that being the case I can only applaud the man for doing as good a job as he did; but there are a few moments where it slightly shows. The editing is competent but not always confident, and lets a few nervous directorial hiccups fall into view sometimes. Perhaps the best way I can put it is: Hellraiser’s good; but could’ve been better.
It’s the kind of film that was made for halloween night, it’s atmospheric and engaging in its horror, but mind boggling and insane in its value as daft entertainment. A healthy mix for a product of the 80’s, especially a horror film. I really like it, it’s not perfect, it has its schlocky flaws, but a film doesn’t make a cultural impact for nothing now, does it? Clive himself regrets what became of Pinhead, feeling that he’s been trivialised as a character over the years; not even being too keen on his given name. But I’m proud of the man for his stamp on horror culture and his effect on my life through influential work as an artistic king. Long may he reign, or I’ll tear your soul apart!