In starting my month-long journey of reviewing a different horror movie every day for the entire month of October, I struggled with deciding what movie to start off with. The traditional answer to me would've been the original 'Halloween' or 'A Nightmare On Elm Street', or even 'Friday the 13th'. I figured I'd go off that beaten path a tiny bit and go with 'Hellraiser', the demonic S&M laced melodrama that focuses on the extremes some people will go to to find pleasure. Most horror fans have drawn their line in the sand and are a "Freddy guy" or a "Jason guy". I happen to be a Pinhead guy.
While the 80's will forever be remembered as the pinnacle of horror movies, by the end of the decade, a lot of people feel the genre had delved into self-parody territory. There's certainly a space for all kinds, but by then, Freddy and Jason had become staples of pop culture. I remember VERY clearly when Freddy Krueger came onto MTV. I remember Jason Voorhees being a guest on Arsenio Hall's talk show. While those are definitely movies and characters that I'll always hold dear to my heart, they had gotten to a point to where they weren't scary and were almost caricatures of themselves . People craved genuine horror, horror that scared the shit out of them, movies that would give them nightmares make them afraid to turn the lights out. Enter Clive Barker, who has to be one of the most delightfully twisted minds in the world. Stephen King once said "I've seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker". Acclaim really does not get much higher than that. Barker wrote a novella titled "The Hellbound Heart", and decided to turn it into a movie, limited only by budget and not his imagination. He would write it, direct it, make the movie he wanted to.
The story focuses on a family in England, seemingly a normal family going through normal drama that comes with a big move, a new job, etc. We have Larry, the dad and husband, and his wife Julia, and Larry's daughter Kirsty. We can tell from the beginning that the relationship between Kirsty and stepmom Julia is strained, to say the least. We're also enlightened about a darker past involving Julia and a torrid affair with Larry's brother, Frank. We're shown this in flashbacks and learn that the house they've recently moved into is where Frank lived...and died. The first part of the movie, which I've honestly never found *that* entertaining or interesting, really focuses on this family aspect. I realize in my description, I could be reviewing an episode of 'Days of Our Lives', but fret not. It gets good. In fact, Clive Barker has said that you could take the box and the Cenobites out and it would be a standard fare family drama, but where's the fun in that?
In a scene that will make even the strongest of stomachs turn, Larry, while moving a mattress into the house, cuts his hand on a nail and bleeds all over the place. As his blood seeps into the floor, we begin to see that this blood begins to bring his brother Frank back to life. Julia, still in love with Frank, discovers this and deeply wants to reunite with him. So Julia starts to bring victims to Frank for him to kill and absorb, each one bringing him closer to being fully revived and back to human form. Kirsty, suspicious of Julia, investigates the house to find out exactly what is going on, is confronted by her half dead, skinless Uncle Frank. She grabs a little golden puzzle box from him, and throws it out the window, and it's obviously something very important to him. She goes back to get the box, solves it, and summons a group of demons that we know as the Cenobites. They're a cross between a goth, leather clad punk rock band and a group of fetishists from a local S&M bar, all garish and gnarly in appearance. Pinhead, or officially credited simply as "Lead Cenobite", explains to Kirsty that they are demons summoned by those that solve this box, usually being people that have pushed themselves beyond
their normal boundaries for pleasure. That's what I always loved about this story, the originality of the mythology. In a time where movies of it's ilk were always about a group of teenagers running from a guy with a machete, here is something that has such a deeper meaning behind it. It explores deep issues about love and sex, pain and pleasure, life and death. When you've seen and done it all, where do you go after that? Sometimes you need to know when and where to draw the line.
Kirsty ends up talking her way out of being torn apart by telling them that she knows someone who has escaped them, and in return for her life, she'll take them to him. Yes, we find out that in his search for finding that line where pain meets
pleasure, Frank and solved the box and was decimated by the demons, only to find a way to return. So Kirsty makes good on her end and goes back home, only to find that uncle Frank has killed her dad and is wearing his skin. So once back in the house, the Cenobites are summoned and refuse to let Frank get away a second time, literally tearing him apart with their infamous hooks and chains, and Frank utterly recites the line "Jesus wept", before being pulled apart. The last remaining moments of the movie are Kirsty and her boyfriend trying to escape the house, and her solving the puzzle to send the monsters back to hell.
While I'm sure you've all seen this movie, a textual review does it no justice. So much of the impact this film has is generated from its, just, visceral tone and imagery. When "demons" are usually described or explained, they're not given much detail. But the Cenobites are brutal to look at and take in. I've used the S&M comparison a lot in this review, but that's the core of what they are. They're demons that were obviously once human, that are now ghostly pale, clad in skin tight leather, hooks dug into their skin, open wounds that are bleeding, throats slit open, chains, tools for death hanging at their waists, all too willing to dole out the ultimate pain, and pleasure. It's brutal stuff. The ironic part is, the thing that the movie is infamous for, Pinhead and these Cenobites, truly aren't the focus of the movie. If you go back and watch it, you'll be surprised at how little screen time they had. Clive Barker has talked many times about how the horror in this movie is supposed to be about the core family and their issues in dealing with jealousy, adultery, etc. The demons and leather and all that are side notes. While that ideology certainly changed in future sequels, which I believe they're up to part 8 or 9 by now (which Barker had nothing to do with except Part 2), and a remake on the way, the series became more about Pinhead killing and spouting one liners, and less about the mystery and mythology.
So I absolutely LOVE 'Hellraiser'. Growing up in the late 80's and early 90's, it was very formative in my love for horror and all things macabre. It made a huge impression on me at an extremely young age, and showed me that there was an almost beautifully disturbing side to life. It was always something of a very dark and almost gothic fairy tale to me. It dealt with extremely deep and adult issues, issues that every family and human being has dealt with. We've dealt with feelings of lust, jealousy, the search for pleasure, whatever that may be to you. But for your sake, I hope that doesn't involve a gang of kinky demons.
'Hellraiser' gets a Cat 'o *Nine* Tails out of 10