Clive Barker raises hell just by existing. With no ability to tell a 35-millimeter lens from a salad saucer, he flung at the camera whatever guts he could grab to confect an X-rated downer with the working title, “Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave.” Later he would title the R-rated final cut closer to its true intentions, calling it “Hellraiser” after the attention-seekers it hopes to inspire. I never saw it in theaters but I doubt I could have, failing well under the minimum number of body piercings needed to get in.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) aren’t happy. Possibly it’s because the first five minutes of their movie is a torture chamber kink video that strips a man of his moving parts with fish hooks and without a fava bean of context and pins them on spinning pillars in a Gothic fetish chamber. It’d be reasonable to think that Julia dislikes this opening, or the rats and maggots living in their new house, but really it’s Larry that she’s not too crazy about. She remembers a heavily-censured night of passion with Larry’s delinquent brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), which pitted her fidelity against Frank’s macho advances to predictable results. At one point in flashback, Frank whips out a knife – Barker apparently had intended to have him whipping out something else. Frank’s just that kind of guy (so is Barker), and repressed office stooge Julia wants to be his/ their kind of gal.

The only one with a whiff of what’s going on is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). For some reason if I wanted to sum up her scenes I’d just say her name, wide-eyed and exhaustively. What’s in a name anyway? Barker acts like “Kirsty” is as good a name as any. I suppose you’re not bound to everyone’s tonal preferences, but I’m still glad that the main characters of “Dawn of the Dead” aren’t named Brad and Tiffany.

Anyway, the deceased Frank coagulates out of the attic floorboards, worse for wear by a term in hell, and asks Julia rather insensitively to kill so that he can feed on life energy and rebuild his body. Instead of reasonably reminding Frank that they had a swell night but nothing doing pal, Julia gets right to it.

No unsuspecting middle management worker within a five-mile radius is safe from Higgins’ middle-aged wiles as she takes them upstairs, strips them down to undershirt and tighty-whites, and they, Julia, Frank, and the MPAA have a decent time at it with a hammer, a swift cutaway, a few slurping sounds, and a slammed door. Christopher Young’s music adds an uplifting turn of phrase to their little enterprise – he makes murdering folks no one will miss and eating their flesh seem like a great accomplishment. But the gore never hits that stomach-curdling excitement of John Carpenter’s The Thing or the perfect pitch farce of Re-Animator. It’s just there for the hell of it.

Where does she hide the bodies, you ask? In a scene where Larry makes it home before the fun’s over, Julia can be seen hauling her latest conquest across the landing into their bedroom, but nothing comes of it. I might have seriously enjoyed a play on Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, a macabre comedy in which Harry keeps getting in everyone’s hair, ruining everyone’s fun, everyone’s looking for him, everyone is trying to hide him, and no one is acknowledging that Harry is a corpse. I can see it now – Larry just missing bodies that Julia has stacked above closet rungs and under tubs and behind curtains, clever reverse set-ups for fake reveals, funny tension to tickle my belly piercing. But Barker wouldn’t make something tense even for a laugh.

Nothing about Hellraiser has the remotest sense of dread (besides perhaps that sense that it’ll inevitably become a franchise). Even Frank as he gradually corporealizes has the sad eyes and questionable brow anatomy you may expect less from a Barker or Cronenberg body horror than from an alien ambassador on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The film’s promotional material has it exactly right to focus on “Pinhead,” so named by fans, the film’s skeletal icon and most fortuitous cosplaying opportunity. He is that well-placed minor character whose imaginative design consumes the film’s style (and our memory of it), like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lector and with the same inevitable propensity to be eventually overused in a sequel/ prequel.

Here, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) wafts into Hellraiser appropriately like an agent of mercy from the plot. He enters in a cadre of four “cenobites,” so named for an implication of apocryphal mythos that Barker never stirs. Each is its own symbolic epitaph: “Chatterer,” for his exposed teeth, “Butterball,” for his gross girth, and “Female,” for her stark whisper and eerie eyes. They come to collect Frank, who summoned them years ago with a Mayan Rubik’s cube or something. They are spirits of another dimension, a place in which “pain and pleasure are indivisible.”

Barker himself seems to be from that dimension. Horror and love are inseparable in Hellraiser, and those who like it even for its eerie romance must in turn get satisfaction from its spurts and gristle (if you throw up on your trench coat, you’ve missed the point entirely). The opportunities for comic con costume groups (his greatest accomplishment) only reinforce the fact that you must be devoted to its badness and its gore in order to be part of its in-crowd. But even that is a missed opportunity, since it hides so much of the goods behind a censor bar and light flicker. Like Julia, you just have to do what it wants, take what you can get, and ask no questions.

If you ever did doubt it, you might realize it’s a fad in the spirit of its title, as painful as a lip-piercing and just as necessary.

Cast & Crew

Clive Barker

Clive Barker (screenplay and story)


Larry Cotton Andrew Robinson
Julia Cotton Clare Higgins
Kirsty Cotton Ashley Laurence
Frank Cotton Sean Chapman
Steve Robert Hines
Doug Bradley Lead Cenobite "Pinhead"
Nicolas Vince/Simon Bamford/Grace Kirby Cenobites

Official Trailer

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