It's dangerous for me to review this film. Not dangerous in the sense that the world will end, or that the internet might collapse, or even that I will catch a cold. It's dangerous in terms of bias. Hellraiser is very important to me as films go, and that's not a surprise–Clive Barker is my favourite author, bar none. I've had a puzzlebox (now out of production, but originally made by the same company that produced many of the horror icon vinyl models sadly no longer advertised on the rear covers of Fangoria) for at least 11 years. I've seen this movie and a number of its sequels many times. I think, though I'm not sure, that I actually saw Hellraiser: Bloodline in theatres. I got into Clive's writing by way of hearing (or, more likely, reading, in one of the many books on horror I used to read constantly) that the film with that creepy guy with pins in his head was based on a story by Barker. A perusal of the local library using only my own internal resources and the computer and print ones I found there, I got myself to The Books of Blood, which I was convinced would include Hellraiser. It didn't. It didn't even include "The Forbidden," the short story that inspired Candyman (unless you're from the UK–over there, that story appeared in one of the latter volumes of Books of Blood, one which was re-titled In the Flesh for US publication). That didn't stop me though.* I leapt from story to story, shorter stories to longer ones, taking in images I'd not seen in the works of Stephen King, who was the author I read most constantly prior. I devoured the entire book (though I was later convinced I had missed some stories, I realized I was mistaken) and moved on to novels, eventually onto his art and even the first computer game he made (I've been put off an instant acquisition of the second by virtue of middling-to-dismal reviews). I have a set of NECA's cenobites, complete with 'lair' in my bedroom right now (the original four, of course). So, bear all this in mind in my review.
A man sits alone in a room with a golden-filigreed black-lacquered box, puzzling its surface for openings. When he finds them, hooked black chains shoot from the opening to find purchase in his flesh. A cut away and return brings us back to the room, now filled with spinning columns of hooks and chains, dangling links and unidentifiable scraps of red. A strange figure in black leather with pins at the intersections of a grid carved across his head assembles some of them into a shape–finally placing an eye to complete the man's face. Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have just moved back into an old home of Larry's after an alluded unpleasant time in Brooklyn. The building is filled with decay, rot, filth and trash–a discarded piece of meat crawls with cockroaches and maggots, a soiled, dirty mattress is covered in rancid sheets and pillows, all left by Larry's brother Frank (Sean Chapman), Larry suggests, when a sexually explicit figurine is found in the bedding. As Larry helps movers bring their possessions into the home, especially an unwieldy mattress, Julia sneaks up to the room with the less clean mattress, digging through the chest of items next to it to find a stack of erotic pictures, all of Frank and an unnamed woman. Julia reminisces about the sexually violent and passionate affair she had with Frank–the man we saw first in the film–on top of her wedding dress as Larry finds himself injured. His own deathly fear of blood leads him to try to find Julia, dripping blood as he goes, which pools to the floor then is seemingly sucked away, as we find that under the floor a heart is beginning to beat without chest or body to hold it, until liquids begin to give just such things shape. When Julia again wanders into this room, this unfinished man identifies himself–it is Frank, again. Julia's lust for him draws her in to eventual acquiescence to his request for more blood to finish his body, unbeknownst to Larry, who is busy with his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is visiting and attempting to reconcile her distaste for stepmother Julia–a reconciliation she abandons when she realizes the danger Julia is creating, and what forces are at work in their lives now.
I've seen this movie a fair number of times–I owned it on VHS, and am reviewing it now after my second purchase of it on DVD**–and I've developed strong enough opinions about it that I pretend there was no Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (I've only seen Bloodline and Hellseeker following that), I have the aforementioned collector's errata and once brought my puzzle box to school for a sort of "show and tell" (which did not involve opening a gateway for the Cenobites, if you're wondering–though I do know the motions required to do so, after seeing the movie enough). I once wrote a letter admonishing the suggestion that the lead Cenobite (or Pinhead, as we all know him) was–well, here it is (still wandering the internet):
"How dare you lump Pinhead in with Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers! It’s acceptable insofar as he has become more recognizable, like those three, than the movies.He has never “stalked” anyone, and no teenagers have been involved. Frank and Julia were quite adults (30+ surely) and Kirsty was at least 22, surely. In the first four movies, (I’d like to skip 3, a stain on the series, that should be burned) there is one teenager, who is neither stalked nor killed by Pinhead (aka “Lead Cenobite”). For shame! Hellraiser gets a horrid reputation for being another “slasher” series, when it involves neither promiscuous teenagers nor machetes, axes, chainsaws, nailguns, pitchforks, etc. The original was a much more complex work about the nature of pain and pleasure, and the relativity of these concepts, as well as just very like a Grimm fairy tale."
Not the most articulate or respectful thing I've ever written, but indicative of my interest in the series (and the long-running way of discussing them I have, in some regards) and my feelings about it. The facts of what I said remain true, as does the sense behind the admonishment. It is not a slasher, despite the fact that Pinhead (who I must mention is played by longtime friend of Barker, Doug Bradley–long enough, that is, that he often refers to him as "Dougie") is, indeed, an icon on the level of Freddy, Jason or Michael. The names alone should clarify things a bit–though, of course, the fact that that nickname stuck has not helped, as it isn't exactly intimidating (though thankfully the history behind it has at least given it some gravitas to those "in the know"). What Pinhead, and the other Cenobites (all simply named, from "Female" played by Grace Kirby to the rotund "Butterball" played by Simon Bamford and on to the constantly moving jaw of "Chatterer" played by Nicholas Vince) are has nothing to do with killing, or with subtexts about penetration. This is not subtle or a fine line if one actually compares any of these films, even without a single knock against those slashers (being as I own bits of each of those series as well, though I'm usually even more selective with them), because it's obvious that there are only a handful of characters in this film and that they are a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. The conflict comes not from randy teens ignoring danger to get it on, but from a marriage that shows its cracks to everyone but the people in it, both of whom recognize a problem, yet clearly cannot see how massive that problem is as Larry tries to do everything right and be a nice guy and Julia tries to maintain her semblance of stability, neither really recognizing the needs of the other but being aware they aren't being met.
This time around I watched the film with someone who had been exposed to very little horror (my girlfriend, if you're wondering, and yes I'm putting a stop to that inexperience) and tried to relax my usually uptight nerves (a lifetime of startle moments tends to leave one so tensed it winds up back at loose, because the shock itself is expected even when nothing indicates it) and found myself fully realizing the tonality of the film, especially as fulfilled by Christopher Young's absolutely masterful score. It is an unusual film, in the same sense that I feel Alien is. There's a general sort of familiarity to the ideas of demons and murder and mutilation, of danger and death, but portrayed in a way that is not seen in any other films–not even sequels. Of course, it's very likely that if they had renewed this feeling in sequels, it would become just as normal as anything else. Instead, we have these first films, in this case one that has strangely sidelined forces, with the antagonist a supernaturally revived but otherwise human character (Frank), and the Cenobites simply a force, making them more fully mysterious and unsettling, their single-minded intensity and strange sets of rules all the more frightening for their existence and, yes, so much more fully alien.
What Clive created in this film was one that eschewed genre conventions of plotting–just as he does in his writing–to simply create a story from his imagination, potent images and ideas and sounds that build the world he wants to show, without any major concessions made to expectation or tradition. What's interesting about his use of gore or sex (both plentiful, though the latter primarily in suggestion) is that it is intended to shock, certainly, but it's not written by a gleeful splatterhound (though I would not be surprised to find Clive does derive that kind of enjoyment), but rather by a mind that simply ignores boundaries such as this in an attempt to explore all possibilities in plotting and imagery. If violence is called for, he lets it fall into place, he does not jump beyond it to focus on it, creating threadbare plots to support the gore, or explicit descriptions and images woven into a clichéd plot. Everything acts at the same intensity, be it drama or grue, and it then becomes a world that is so fantastically unreal, yet accepts the reality of things like sex and violence, never acting to play down these things, but never reaching for them either. It's fascinating, especially when coupled with otherwise unseen ideas and concepts like that of the force that is the Cenobites, mutilated people acting utterly inhuman for an unknown reason, simply a new thing at work on the world without the emotionality of human motivation. Clive always brings these things together–a sense of the Grand Guignol coupled with a disinterest in forcing its hand as such tied to ideas that are not easily sourced, all intensely creative but melded perfectly into an acceptably believable environment.
This is the horror flagship of the 80s, even if it is not necessarily the best horror film of that decade. Clive is too humble to ever pretend he is completely without inspiration, but the inspirations are not so obvious as in many other films, and for this I love this film–and, I suppose, all the work of Mr. Barker.
Oh, right. This is also yet another in the running list of films Ebert proves his idiocy in reviewing. He gave the film an abysmal score and suggested it was effectively "torture porn" before such a term existed, suggesting those of us interested in it are sick. Please, learn to do something else with your writing talent, Ebert. Your opinions so often reek of your own pretentious ignorance and inattention that it's embarrassing to read.
To end on a positive note: I'd really like to find out how Coil's soundtrack would have been used (I imagine it was never synced, but with technology now…!) Just to see, of course, because Young's is so excellent, but it remains an interesting idea. I've heard the stuff and it would be a pretty big change, so I'm just curious.
*Just for those who don't yet know, though it's far easier to research now, The Hellbound Heart is the novella behind this film.
**The only negative thing I simply have to say is the "Still Raising Hell" tagline at the bottom of the cover of this new Anchor Bay DVD is tasteless, stupid and inappropriate.