Hellraiser (1987) / Horror-Fantasy
aka Clive Barker's Hellraiser
MPAA Rated: R for violence, gore, sexuality, brief nudity, and language
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Andrew Robinson, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines, Doug Bradley, Grace Kirby, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford
Director: Clive Barker
Screenplay: Clive Barker (adapted from his novel, "The Hellbound Heart")
Review published May 22, 2005
A cult favorite for fans of author Clive Barker, but just plain silly (and very gory) schlock for just about everyone else, Hellraiser marked the first feature film as a director, adapting his own novel, "The Hellbound Heart". One of the main problems with his film has nothing to do with his relative inexperience as a director (he has done two short films prior to this). This big problem is that the budget of the film can't sustain the vision of Barker's ambitious imagination, so the look and tone suffer as a result. Poor lighting, unappealing actors, obvious special effects, and a claustrophobic way of filming all add up to a cheap looking gore-fest.
Still, in the slasher-film driven 1980s, Hellraiser at least offered something different, and despite all that it had going against it, it did have Barker's name, and a ringing endorsement by horror maestro Stephen King, who hyped up Barker as the "future of horror fiction." It would go on to make it's modest million dollar budget back many times over, and even spawn three theatrical sequels and even more straight-to-video productions that are still being made to this day.
Hellraiser starts with Frank Barker (Sean Chapman) getting his hands on a mysterious puzzle box that will allow him to experience pleasure and pain beyond earthly recognition. Presumed dead, Frank's house is left to his brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry), and Frank's former lover (and Larry's current wife), Julia. There are some strange things about the place, not the least of which is Frank's carcass that has come back to life in the attic thanks to some blood spilling. Feeling revitalized, Frank gets Julia to bring in more victims to the slaughter in order so he can regain his flesh-and-blood state once again, and escape the S&M driven Hellspawn known as the Cenobites, who enjoy inflicting eternal pain on their prey.
In addition to the poor look of the film, what Hellraiser really lacks is the essential character development that would make all of the following hullabaloo make some sense. Had there been a better establishment as to why Julia would risk life and limb for the gruesome cadaver come to life, Frank, other than the fact that he's a whizz in the sex department, one could see why she would willingly bring him innocent people for him to kill. Without the strong bond, everything else that follows feels artificial, going through predictable motions in order to get to what Barker really is interested in showing -- the sadomasochistic costumed bad guys and some very gruesome deaths at their hands.
I do realize that in horror circles, Hellraiser is something akin to a classic, but as is always the case, I don't really grade films based on popular opinion among fanboys of the genre. I can definitely see the visual appeal for those who like fetish-gear and the S&M undertones which are regurgitated time and again throughout the movie. Also, the gore factor is high, so if you like your horror full of disembowelings and non-stop bloodiness, Hellraiser may be right up your alley. As for me, I like a good story, plot and characters I can feel for, and unfortunately, these narrative essentials are fairly low on Barker's filmmaking agenda, as he ratchets up the sensationalistic mayhem to the utmost degree. All in all, a very boring, loathsome experience that somehow has gained a following among people who enjoy purely visceral horror.
©2005 Vince Leo