I first watched Hellraiser when I was 12 years old. I had a TV in my bedroom and I sneakily watched it on a very low volume to avoid detection from my parents. It was a terrible mistake. It remains the most terrifying film-watching experience I’ve ever had (although House of the Devil ran it close last year) and still to this day I’m not sure why I didn’t turn it off. All I remembered about it was hooks & chains, and those chattering teeth...
Watching it as (kind of) an adult was a completely different experience. I think there is a misconception about this film that it is unnecessarily violent or silly, I suppose this is a charge frequently levelled at the majority (all?) horror films, but I couldn’t disagree more with this perception of Hellraiser. It’s actually a pretty astonishing film.
From the opening shot of dirty fingernails completing a cash transaction, you know that you're not going to have a comfortable experience watching this movie. Throughout this film there are some incredibly grotesque images that make the viewer squirm. There are also moments that will make you jump, and scenes where the tension is near unbearable. In other words, it ticks many of the horror boxes that we love so much. There are also iconic characters; Pinhead is now regarded as one the most recognisable of all horror ‘villains’, and his cronies (the other Cenobites) are just as memorable. Yet they don’t really make this film, just like the other ticked boxes don’t. There is a real depth to this film that, for whatever reason, is overlooked.
The destructive pursuit of the ultimate in sensory experience heaps misery upon all of the main characters. To begin with, we have Frank – a selfish scumbag who buys a mysterious puzzle box, which when solved opens a gateway to hell. He is determined to find the ultimate in pleasure and pain, but he finds much more than he bargained for at the hands of the Cenobites. Through good fortune he manages to escape and returns, in a physically diminished form, back to his deceased mother’s house. The house is now occupied by his estranged brother and his wife, Julia. Through flashbacks we learn that Julia had an affair with Frank before she married his brother, and she’s the one who finds him hiding away in a room in the house. She soon learns that in order for him to be fully restored she will need to bring him fresh blood...
It has been described as a love story, but I think that it’s really about infatuation. Julia is infatuated with Frank, and it is that desire to reconnect with her own ultimate sensory experience that drives the film towards misery for all involved. In her own way she is following Frank’s own selfish, self-destructive path perfectly.
Frank uses her to get what he needs, and his power over her is extraordinary, but it certainly isn’t love. Claire Higgins does an excellent job of giving the character of Julia real depth and sadness. We can feel her unsatisfied emptiness from the start, and we follow her from initial reluctance right through to full complicity, which eventually dooms her.
Even without the icons of horror, the jumps and the absolutely stunning special effects (surely the best of the 80s?)... this is an excellent film. It’s by no means a perfect film, but the script and acting make it a really compelling and involving movie. There are also some incredible shots and jaw-dropping visuals, which probably haven’t been given the recognition that they are due. The tight angles on the staircase, in particular, enhance the overall feel of the movie. It all goes to show what a talent Clive Barker is (although what a strange mind he must have to come up with some of his ideas). It has also made me curious to watch some of the Hellraiser sequels to see if they are really as bad as I’ve been led to believe.
This film will make me rethink the order of my horror movie top 10. I may need to make room for this truly unique movie.