“What’s your pleasure, sir?”
Released in 1987, Hellraiser is a fantastic horror film that placed Clive Barker’s name on the same level as Stephen King and John Carpenter. For years after it came out it was a regular at movie nights among my friends. We quoted it, we slipped references to it into our games, and one of our game masters ran a series of highly fatal superhero adventures revolving around the Hellraiser universe. Eventually we found other things to geek out about and as with all things that become too familiar, Hellraiser dropped off our regular viewing list. Recently I decided to revisit our old favorite.
It’s been a long time.
“I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”
The story of Hellraiser revolves around the Cotton family. Frank Cotton is the despicable brother, traveling the world in search of the most intense experiences possible. Frank acquires an occult puzzle box that opens doorways to other worlds, but he receives more than he bargained for. Taken by the enigmatic Cenobites he is tortured in the most extreme fashion, ripped apart body and soul.
Years later Frank’s milquetoast brother Larry and his wife Julia move into the home where Frank had been lost. An accident causes Larry’s blood to be spilled on the floor which allows Frank’s body to partially rebuild itself, his soul escaping from hell. Years before, Frank and Julia had an affair and Julia, stifled by her marriage and yearning for the ecstasy she felt with Frank, agrees to murder people so he can absorb their blood to regenerate. The two plan on running away; Frank from the Cenobites and Julia from her boring life.
Everything was going according to plan, until Larry’s daughter Kristy discovers the murders, the puzzle box, and accidentally summons the Cenobites.
“Oh, no tears please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”
The movie holds up remarkably well and watching it reminded me just why it has such a vaunted place in horror cinema. The last time I watched Hellraiser I was the same age of the heroine, Kristy Cotton. This time I’m closer to her father in age. I’m not sure how much of a difference age makes in how I view films, but I look more at the craft now than I did then and little things make more of an impression than they used to. Things like the immaculate Julia’s slightly smeared lipstick, reflecting the blurring of her sanity, stick in my mind as much as the scorpion-like beast from the labyrinth. Hellraiser is filled with such wonderfully significant little elements.
You could say that the devils are in the details.
The atmosphere of the movie is excellent. Carpenter uses washed out colors and dingy sets and contrasts them with characters who behave and are dressed as archetypes of an upper-middle class 80’s family. These people, well dressed and focused on their lives, seem mostly oblivious to the signs of decay all around them. The result is not a heavy and foreboding atmosphere, instead it’s one of discomfort and anxiety. This tension is further enhanced by the pacing of the movie, which is steady and relentless. There is no down time, no moment to catch your breath, and even the character development happens in motion.
I’ve said that the pacing is relentless, but that doesn’t mean it’s a race. To draw out the metaphor, Hellraiser doesn’t sprint to the ending. It speed walks there, pulling you along, letting you see things on the way but never giving you a moment to examine them.
I never realized before how much Hellraiser owes to the low budget horror films of the 70’s and 60’s. Barker manages to take all the best, most uncomfortable, most disconcerting elements of the schlock films and raises them to a nightmarish art form. Grotesque imagery? Pushing personal boundaries? Leering looks and uncomfortable situations? It’s all here. Sure, there are jump scares too, but Hellraiser evokes more horror by sitting on the edge of your peripheral vision and whispering horrible things into your ear.
Then it hits you with a clawed hammer.
“You solved the box, we came. Now you must come with us. Taste our pleasures.”
Something else I noticed was how different Kristy is from most heroes in horror films, particularly for an 80’s movie. She is competent. She never crosses over into badass territory, she never becomes Ripley from Alien, and that works here. She’s an early 20-something woman with a troubled but normal life thrown into a horrible situation. She has breakdowns, you can see her dip into shock repeatedly, but she keeps going and she survives. She makes mistakes, usually because she can’t come to grips with the nightmares confronting her, and the mistakes feel real.
Even her boyfriend doesn’t fit the usual model. He does come to help her, but she’s the one who saves him. Her boyfriend’s role in the narrative isn’t to rescue her, it’s to witness enough of the events that there is someone left alive who knows she isn’t crazy.
Another interesting twist on genre conventions is the movie’s relationship with sex. The cliche for slasher films is to punish sexual activity, especially when it’s young people having sex. In Hellraiser it’s clear that Kristy and her boyfriend have sex, after what may have been their first meeting. But it’s sex among the older people that has consequences. Julia’s lust drives her to kill for Frank. She lures men to be murdered using their lust for her. Sexual dysfunction between Julia and Larry is hinted at and dramatically symbolized in one particular scene. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
If there is one place that Hellraiser leaves the audience wanting more, it’s the cosmology of the Cenobites. For the sake of the first movie this makes sense; we’re not supposed to know more and numerous movies and books have gone on to flesh out their universe with varying degrees of success. Still, I can’t help wishing that Carpenter would have dropped a few more bits of information. But then, the rule of show business is to leave the audience wanting more.
“We have such sights to show you.”
If you’ve never watched Hellraiser, or if you’re like me and it’s been a while, give it a look. It’s a true classic, both for its era and of all time.