Funny things happen when you aren’t paying attention to pop culture. One minute you’re reading the works of Clive Barker and the next minute The Weinstein Company has gone and made 9 movies in the Hellraiser franchise. You read that right: 9 movies. I feel like a failure of a horror buff, as I was only aware of the first 4 and have only seen the first 3. Between 9 movies, a comic-book series, a planned TV adaptation, and the ever-present possibility of a reboot, the film studio won’t rest until every drop of blood is squeezed from this proverbial stone.
Yet it’s worth it to go back to the first film and see what made these characters so memorable. Shot for $1 million in 1987 by writer and first-time director Barker, Hellraiser is based on his novella The Hellhound Heart. Frank (Sean Chapman) travels the world in search of the Box, a mysterious object that leads to the world of the Cenobites, dealers in pain and pleasure (mostly pain). Once he obtains the Box, Frank is sucked into hell; however, he’s partially resurrected when his brother Larry (a pre-Garak Andrew Robinson) cuts himself in the room where Frank died. Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who was once Frank’s lover, finds him and tries to bring him back to life by luring men to the house, where she can kill them and Frank can use their blood to regenerate. Larry and his daughter Kristy (Ashley Laurence) are unaware of Frank and Julia’s plans, until Kristy stumbles in on Julia killing a man. Kirsty escapes and ends up in possession of the Box, which summons the Cenobites. While the Cenobites want to take Kristy back to their world, Kristy offers them Frank instead. Frank is eventually caught and returned to hell, Kristy escapes, and the Box finds its way to another buyer.
It’s interesting to watch Hellraiser now and see how it holds up as a film, which it does surprisingly well. The best horror films make sparing use of their main scares, which is on display here. Barker’s Cenobites have very little screen time and aren’t really the focus of the movie. (The iconic Pinhead isn’t even named in this first film, referred to instead as ‘Head Cenobite.’) Instead, the movie concentrates on Frank and Julia’s love affair, both before and after Frank’s death. Barker weaves sadomasochistic themes throughout the story, and uses creepy imagery and low-budget effects to their full potential. Fans of practice effects over CGI rejoice: Hellraiser is chock-full of real maggots, real cockroaches and enough fake blood to satisfy.
The low budget nature of the film also ensures its iconic status. Since he didn’t know what he was doing (Barker reportedly tried to check out books on directing from the local library), Barker just goes with his vision. He wanted to make a movie where the monsters could describe their lives and their pain, which wasn’t done in 1987, the age of silent killers Jason and Michael Myers. (Freddy Kruger is an exception, but he spent more time quipping then lamenting.) The scares are sparse and go back and forth between the supernatural and the very real.
Being a bit masochistic for bad movies I’ll probably watch the rest of the movies in the franchise. I did, after all, once watch Exorcist III and IV. But I can already imagine none of Hellraiser’s 8 sequels will equal the original in terms of creep factor. Stay tuned…
Quick summary: Frank has been searching the world for the Box, a puzzle box that holds the secrets of pleasure and pain. But as soon as he opens it, he discovers he’s in for more than he bargained for.
Too many writers? One man, one vision: Clive Barker.
Recommended if you like: Iconic horror films, being grossed out by insects.
Better than I expected? While I know the puppets were built for the cheap, they are still convincing.
Would it work better in a different medium? It’s already a comic book and there’s talks of a TV adaption in the works. What medium wouldn’t it work in?
Verdict: Best use of $1 million I’ve ever seen.
Related Reading: Wiki article on the 9-movie franchise