Some of you may find it odd that a man my age who loves his horror has never sat down to watch Hellraiser before now. I don’t even have a reason why I’ve not seen it; I haven’t particularly avoided it for any reason. It’s just never made it into my collection. So when I heard that my boss here at 25YL wanted to do some articles on the Hellraiser franchise, I had to hold my hands up and admit that I’d never seen it. You can imagine some of the reactions. So, I told myself I would buy the Blu-Ray, watch it and then write about what it was like to have a first viewing so long after its initial release. All I knew about the film before this was that it featured a puzzle box, some kind of scary Rubik’s cube, and the guy who looked like a Slipknot reject with nails in his face. Other than that, I knew that it was horror and that it was 80’s, which is usually a winning combo in my book. So it’s Friday night, I have my coffee, I have my snacks, I have the disc in ready to rock. Wish me luck. I’m going in.
(90 minutes of screaming and gore)
Ok, that was not what I was expecting to be perfectly honest. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. It was a great film, much deeper than I expected, and the gore was intense. I loved the leading lady, Julia, I thought she was great and I was upset to see her die. I was hoping she would be in the sequels too. And I loved the story of her and Frank, and him needing her to kill people for him to drain their blood. I also loved the monsters: the Cenobites, they were great. And that monster from the hospital was spectacularly horrifying. I think I was expecting a more tried and tested storyline, a family haunted by these monsters perhaps. So this story completely threw me. In a good way. It was dark, from the very beginning it was dark. Several scenes shocked me, and a couple genuinely sent a shiver up my spine. I am kicking myself for not watching it sooner as it’s really not what I was expecting. I could do with a nice lie down. I wonder what the sequels are about… But I digress, for now, join me as I talk about what made Hellraiser a brilliant first time viewing a good 32 years after its initial release.
So, first of all, I would like to mention the opening scene. This film doesn’t ease you gently at all; it throws you right into the deep end. Two men sit at a table in a crowded bar. They have filthy fingernails and money is exchanged for a mysterious box with an intricate gold pattern all over it. In the next scene, the man who bought the box is kneeling on the floor shirtless, holding the box in his hands and surrounded by a square of candles. It instantly gave me demonic ritual vibes. He manipulates the box and it shifts and transforms its shape, it really is like a Rubik’s cube! Only as he does this, things get dark. Strange blue lights slowly appear from behind the walls and creepy noises start rumbling in. As he slides the box into its final form, small hooks attached to chains appear from inside the box and latch on to his flesh. The man screams and we see flashes of other rooms in his house. It’s run down and gross, with rotting food and bugs. When the camera returns to the attic where he held the ritual, there are now chains hanging everywhere and each one has flesh and gore attached to it. The man is dead it seems, ripped apart by the strange hooks.
Before I could take in all of the delicious gore, an ear here, a piece of skull there, suddenly the Cenobites are here! I had to Google the names as they’re not actually mentioned in the film. There’s the Female, with weird metal wires through her face, and there’s Pinhead, the iconic Hellraiser figure. He really is an impressive sight. The leather outfits they wear are almost bondage like—sexy monsters! They move around the gore, and Pinhead pushes his hands through the flesh on the floor searching for parts of the man’s face. He collects them together on the floor like a gross jigsaw puzzle. He then manipulates the box back into its original form (I notice HIS nails are perfectly clean) and as the box snaps shut with some brilliant 80’s electricity effects, the room is suddenly empty. No gore, no chains, a perfectly normal attic room. It’s honestly one of the most intriguing openings to a horror film I’ve seen in years. What is the box? Who are the Cenobites? Did the man know that was going to happen to him? And if so, why would he do it? The film is already different from what I expected. It’s mysterious and weird, I honestly don’t know what’s happening at this point and I love it. Great opening scene.
The opening really sets the tone for the film well, as this wasn’t the only time I was left thinking, ‘What the fuck?!’. The whole film is just as dark and gore-filled as the opening scene. The story, for anyone unfamiliar with it, focuses around the man who opened the box, Frank, slowly coming back to life at the cost of human sacrifices. He gets these sacrifices from my favorite character, Julia. She moves into the house with her loser husband Larry, who happens to be the brother of Frank. We quickly learn that Julia had an affair with Frank—an affair she likes to remember in vivid daydreams. When Larry cuts his hand and spills blood in the attic, Frank returns as a hideous, skeletal monster. Every time he gets a blood sacrifice, he becomes more human. He talks Julia into bringing him sacrifices so that he can become whole and they can leave together. They would have gotten away with it if too if it wasn’t for that meddling kid. In this case, the kid is Larry’s daughter Kirsty, who learns of Julia and Frank’s wicked scheme and ultimately stops them by leading the Cenobites to Frank. They want him back as he wasn’t supposed to escape their world. I assume he goes to some level of hell—I’m not sure it ever specifies. But he mentions a place between pleasure and pain, heaven and hell. Frank is killed, and Kirsty barely gets out of the house before it is destroyed. Then a dragon appears and takes the box back to the mysterious man who sold it to Frank in the first place, thus starting the cycle all over again. I’m serious. There’s a dragon. More on that later.
Before that, I need to comment on the cast. Clare Higgins plays Julia, sexy and brooding, and not afraid of beating men to death with a hammer. She has instantly made it onto my kickass horror women list. She’s a fantastic actress and her portrayal of Julia is perfect. She’s cold and bitchy to her husband and Kirsty, but suddenly passionate and fiery with Frank. Her 80’s fashion is decadent and fabulous, and some of the close-ups of her face are just stunning. I was genuinely gutted when she died, at the hands of Frank no less. Who knew she couldn’t trust the monstrous man returned from a hell world?!
I assumed the sequels would be about her and Frank. Maybe she’ll come back the same way he did? Fingers crossed. Kirsty is also a great character, played by Ashley Laurence. She has a little more depth to her than some other 80’s horror women’s roles. She survived the film, so I assume she’ll be in at least one of the sequels. Frank is another stand out performance, delivering some truly iconic lines and playing the pain obsessed bad guy brilliantly. I never want to hear ‘Come to daddy’ again. The Cenobites are also great, but we don’t see a lot of them in this first film. This surprised me as I assumed they would take centre stage, like so many other horror villains. Again, I assume they’ll play a bigger part in later films.
Another thing I loved about this film is the physical effects. Good old fashioned gore made with real materials and all the more sickly because of it. Some parts do look a bit silly compared to today’s standards, I must admit. The monster from the hospital, who returns later in the film at the house, looks pretty bad. It’s still terrifying because of how it looks, and because of it’s creepy reaching arms, but you can tell it’s a man-made thing. I still don’t see this as a negative; it’s one of the things I love about the older horror films. And the way the Cenobites look more than makes up for it. I think visually, Chatterer is my favorite. It’s chattering teeth and exposed gums are really horrible to look at, and the scene with him almost kissing Kirsty made me really uneasy. Also, the different stages of Frank becoming more human look fantastic. Once he has developed muscle, and he looks wet with blood and pus, he looks genuinely disgusting. It makes the scenes were he is close with Julia all the more sickening. One scene in particular has her moving one of his skinless fingers across her lip. This made me feel physically sick. Excellent job from the special effects guys!
The scares in the film work brilliantly too. We have the tried and tested jump scares for sure, but we’re also treated to some on-screen horror scenes and some pretty dark ideas that will stay with you long after the film ends. The first scene to scare me was when Julia first finds Frank in the attic. He’s a skeletal, humanoid mess of gore at this point. She backs away from him to the door and we see him crawl quickly towards her. His legs don’t work at this point so he can only use his arms. It made me cold watching the scene; it was genuinely creepy. The amount of time we spend staring at Frank in his various forms of muscle and flesh really is horrific. Another scene that stands out is when Larry is trying, (and failing), to get Julia in the mood for some afternoon delight. Frank is watching from the closet and he eventually exits and whips out a switchblade. Julia spots him and we watch him move closer to the couple as she begs him to stop. He looks awful at this point, he wears clothes but they’re heavily stained in blood as he has no skin. Watching him slowly approach them made me feel queasy, and the blade foreshadows Julia’s fate later in the film. It’s a horror film that uses a different angle to terrify its audience, and it works brilliantly. I was still talking to my boyfriend about how dark it was the next day.
So to briefly touch on the final scenes of the film, I still find myself trying to figure out what the hell happened. Frank kills Julia and is then caught, and killed with hooks again by the Cenobites. They then turn their attention to Kirsty, who runs through the house, taking them down one by one by manipulating the box. As the last Cenobite disappears back to its own world presumably, Kirsty and her boyfriend escape the house just as it is destroyed. As they stand amongst the fire and the rubble, Kirsty throws the box into the flames. Then the creepy hobo that has been following Kirsty throughout the film appears. He reaches into the fire, retrieves the box, and transforms into a skeletal dragon. You read that right; he’s a skeletal dragon. He flies away with the box and Kirsty is left looking as confused as I felt. The box is suddenly back in the busy cafe being sold to a new victim. That bit, I understand. We need a sequel, so someone else needs to open the box. But…why was the hobo a dragon?! Was he a Cenobite? Or the guardian of the box perhaps? I need to read some online theories I guess. It just felt a little deflating, after such an interesting story and grim ending, why did there have to be a dragon?! It feels a little stupid, but maybe I’m missing the point.
Overall, Hellraiser was a fantastic film. As a horror lover I am kicking myself for not watching it sooner. But at least I have the sequels to look forward to! The story was incredibly dark and very different from any other films of its time. The casting was brilliant, the effects were over the top and delicious, and the way it was filmed was beautiful. In a ‘watch out for that puddle of flesh’ kind of way. It worked as a horror as some scenes scared the crap out of me, but more than that the story left me intrigued and wanting more. I would never have predicted what the film was about or how it would end. From what I had seen already, I thought the creepy box would unleash demons onto an unsuspecting typical American family. I was very wrong, and I’m thrilled that I was. This wasn’t just another 80’s slasher flick. It has so much more to offer than that. And as Pinhead promises, I’m sure the sequels have such sights to show me.