Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987)

Demon to some. Angel to others.

Larry moves into his brother’s old house with Julia and daughter Kirsty. When Larry cuts himself and bleeds into the floorboards, he resurrects his brother Frank, who had previously solved an ancient Chinese puzzle box and was drawn into a nightmarish world of sadistic demons known as the Cenobites. Their eternal vision of pleasure crossed disturbing boundaries with pain and Frank was left a mess of bones and bile. Given a new lease of life, Frank enlists the help of ex-lover Julia to murder innocent victims so that he can continue to restore his body. No one has ever escape from the Cenobites and a chance encounter with them leads Kirsty to making a deal in order to send Frank back.


After he was disappointed in the way that a couple of his previous novels had been adapted for the big screen, horror writer Clive Barker stepped up to the director’s chair to turn his own best-selling novel, The Hellbound Heart, into a film that did justice to the source material. Thus in 1987, Barker unleashed Hellraiser upon the genre and, with it, the nightmarish world of the Cenobites. Considering how horror was on a downward spiral in the late 80s with the likes of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street outstaying their franchises and the slasher sub-genre as a whole being on life support with scores of nonsensical teenagers being sliced and diced without a second thought, Hellraiser came along like a sucker punch to the gut with its graphic adult content and seriousness. This wasn’t play time in the summer camps anymore – the ‘dead’ horror genre was given an energetic jolt of Britishness in the form of Clive Barker’s seminal classic.

Hellraiser was dabbling in the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre long before Saw and Hostel came along, exploring the fine line between pain and pleasure and highlighting humanity’s primal urges and cravings and constantly giving in to primitive temptations. These are adult themes and are explored in some detail, which might be why this film went way over my head the first time I saw it when I was a lot younger (and which is probably why it never really found its audience until years later). Now as a mature viewer, I can appreciate the messages and the undertones that the film is attempting to establish.

Hellraiser isn’t quite the film you’d expect after seeing a lot of the promotional material and the first half plays out like some quasi-slasher with a romantic subplot latched alongside. Grounded in a very character-driven story, the film does slow the pace right down between Frank’s flesh feasting. The strongest part of the screenplay is in the complex relationship between the four main characters: Frank, Larry, Julia and Ashley. Though the film depicts Pinhead and his ‘friends’ as the villains, in reality it is Frank, and to a lesser extent Julia, who are the villains. I can’t give too much away about how each of the characters interacts with each other as that would give too many of the plot twists away but the story never feels forced. Though there are a few hiccups along the way, the majority of the narrative is solid and it will keep you engaged. Most importantly, the script treats the audience with intelligence, assuming we can figure out a lot of what is going on but without over-explaining and spoiling everything.

Hellraiser belongs to Clare Higgins, who plays Julia as one of cinema’s biggest ultra-bitches. Compelled to assist Frank because of her carnal lust, Julia soon goes about doing all of his bidding, luring in horny men so that Frank can use their bodies to continue to resurrect himself. She starts off as an uptight, rather distant and unloving stepmother but as the film progresses, she becomes more and more cold, and more sinister. Higgins’ performance is so underrated – it’s so easy to hate on her for her actions but the character is given far more depth than just being a one-note villain and the back story she has allows her just the faintest hint of humanity. Maybe it’s another of Barker’s ideas of human weakness, but Julia feels driven to obey Frank due to some primal instincts rather than her love for him. Andrew Robinson is equally as good, playing loving father and husband Larry with oblivious sincerity before events in the film cause him to change gears.

Hellraiser isn’t afraid to pull the punches with its content. From the sexual and sado-masochistic undertones, to the gore content, the film pushes the ratings system as far as it can go. It’s a very bloody affair, quite graphic at times, and relishes every minute of it. For a start, Frank’s heap of blood and goo form in the early part of the form is a masterpiece of practical effects work and stop-motion animation and his eventual resurrection into skinless form is a sight to behold. Years later and the practical effects stand up as well as they ever did. The film’s tour-de-grace is the finale which involves one character famously being torn apart by hooks and chains – the image which has become synonymous with the Hellraiser franchise.

Though he didn’t have a name in this one, Barker was responsible for introducing cinema to one of its most sadistic and recognisable villains: the iconic Pinhead. He is credited only as ‘Lead Cenobite’ and has little screen time, with even fewer lines, but his image was that startling that it was a no-brainer he would become a horror favourite. With his pale blue bald head covered in jewelled pins that had been intricately driven through to the skull, his black S&M-style clothing and a number of open wounds ripped with hooks down his chest, the character was something out of the darkest nightmares. The fact that he is so ably portrayed by actor Doug Bradley just adds to his aurora – Pinhead’s lines are Shakespearian-esque and morality-driven soundbites, far from the hokey one-liners that Freddy Krueger was spouting at this point in his career.

The rest of the deformed Cenobites are some of cinema’s most magnificent creations. With their pale complexions, skin twisted and contorted in all manner of ghastly ways and hooks and other sharp implements stuck into their bodies, they are truly the creatures of nightmares. We’re only given little insights into their history and their world but it’s enough to pique your interest. Clive Barker was, and still is, a modern day Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, with his wild imagination conjuring up all manner of supernatural and extradimensional horrors that can’t simply be explained by reason or science. The Cenobites sit firmly at the top of that warped brain of his.


Unleashed into a bland world of Friday the 13th wannabes, Hellraiser was and still is a breath of fresh air to the genre. Highly imaginative and deeply unsettling, it gets better with age in my opinion. Certainly one of the most unique and disturbing horror films of all time.





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