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Hellraiser (1987)

Clive Barkers Hellraiser

Demon to some. Angel to others.

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 93 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18


At its best, horror is one of the most subversive and confronting of film genres, able to tap into our deepest reservoirs of fear and anxiety and bring them oozing to the surface. Yet in the deeply conservative period of the mid to late eighties, horror’s well ran bone-dry, as Hollywood proved unwilling, or unable, to break free of its own tired formulae, bombarding viewers with an endless succession of sequels and diminishing returns. In a little under ten years there were four inferior follow-ups to ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, a staggering seven sequels to ‘Friday the 13th’ – and every other horror director seemed to be just going through the motions, slavishly mimicking these long-expired franchises for all that they were (or, more to the point, were not) worth.

Yet just when the world of horror had become oversaturated with moronically buff teen victims, unstoppable heavy-breathing slashers and undead paedophiles delivering sub-Schwarzenegger wisecracks, a young English director named Clive Barker came right out of left field to remind filmgoers what a scary place hell can be when presented with imagination and originality. ‘Hellraiser’, based on Barker’s own novel ‘The Hellbound Heart’, was so many things at once – a haunted house movie, a sadomasochistic fairytale, a family tragedy, a gory piece of gothic – and yet it was like no other film of its decade, and touched a raw nerve with its all-new horror mythology, its elegant narrative construction, and its unabashedly dark unpleasantness. In short, it was – and remains – a classic, able to get under the skin not least because for over half the film one of the main characters has none of his own.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves back into the old family house with his frosty wife Julia (Clare Higgins) after his wayward brother Frank (Sean Chapman) has once again disappeared from the scene – but far from merely skipping town, this time Frank has opened the gates of hell with a mysterious box, and his soul has been taken to the outer limits of pleasure and pain. After Larry’s hand is injured while moving furniture, a splash of his blood revives what remains of Frank’s body, buried under the floorboards. Desperate to reform himself bodily (if not morally) with more blood, the skeletal Frank enlists the help of Julia, with whom he had once had a passionate affair, and she is soon enticing strangers into the house for him to suck dry. Yet when Frank’s attention is attracted by Larry’s pretty daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), she is forced to cut a dangerous deal with the infernal Cenobites, once-human guardians who want their escaped ward back and will raise hell to get him.

Full of images that instantly entered the nightmares of the collective unconscious – the puzzle box that opens a path to eternally exquisite torment, Frank’s body rebuilding itself sinew by bloody sinew, and the Cenobites themselves with their radically pierced and surgically altered bodies (including their iconic and eloquent leader, who would be dubbed ‘Pinhead’ in the film’s many sequels) – ‘Hellraiser’ is a horror film not to be missed, even if some may find the exotic pleasures which it offers to be cruel torture.

It's Got: A magic puzzle box, torture with hooks on chains, adultery, seduction, vampirism, incest, and a whole new demonology for our age – plus, uncharacteristically for the genre, some very fine acting from the leads.

It Needs: What more do you want?

DVD Extras Scene selection; widescreen (1.78:1) format, enhanced for 16:9 televisions; choice of 2.0 stereo/5.1 surround/dts; optional (English) subtitles for the hearing impaired; a choice of two full audio commentaries, the first by director/writer Clive Barker and actress Ashley Laurence (moderated by Pete Atkins), the second by Clive Barker alone – these offer minimally different variations on essentially the same anecdotes, and just one commentary would have sufficed, but Barker is an engaging and articulate raconteur, describing (amongst other things) how the MPAA’s demand for certain cuts actually made the film end up looking “more violent”, how the BBFC’s concerns about cruelty to animals forced him to demonstrate in their offices that the rat used in the film was mechanical rather than real, and how the effects crewmen are clearly visible on camera in one particular scene – while Laurence complains about the live maggots that found their way into her underwear. Other extras include: on-set interviews (6min) with Barker, effects supervisor Bob Keen, and actors Clare Higgins, Andrew Robinson and Ashley Laurence; 4 theatrical trailers and 5 TV spots; ‘Hellraiser: Resurrection’ (24min) a retrospective featurette including new interviews with Barker, actors Laurence, Doug Bradley, Simon Bamford, Nicholas Vince, Oliver Smith, composer Christopher Young, special effects artists Keen and Steve Johnson, Cenobite costume designer Jane Wildgoose, and fetishistic performance artists Puncture (“Clive’s imagination has helped us build our reality”); ‘Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser’ (12min) on his long friendship (since high school) with Barker, on ‘Hellraiser’ as “Ibsen with monsters”, and on the 6 hours it took each day to put on his ‘Pinhead’ make-up; storyboards and a storyboard-to-final-cut comparison of the ‘birth of Frank’ sequence; stills gallery (behind-the-scenes/make-up and SFX photos/promotional material); draft screenplay (via DVD-rom); puzzle-box screensaver. Anchor Bay’s new Limited Edition 4 Disc Box Set features not only the first three ‘Hellraiser’ films, but also (on the fourth disc) two early shorts by Barker. The first, ‘Salomé’ (1973, 27min, including introductions by Peter Whittle, Barker, Pete Atkins and Doug Bradley), is a dialogue-free, black-and-white retelling of the biblical story, which despite its shortcomings (it is somewhat sophomoric, and impressionistic beyond the point of obscurity), has a definite otherworldly quality, aided by its eerie photography, sometimes oversaturated, sometimes dramatically underlit. The second, much better film, ‘The Forbidden’ (1978, 48min, including introductions by Barker, Atkins and Bradley), is a hauntingly ritualistic evocation of the myth of Faust, printed in negative to give its images a ghostly beauty (shadows appear as light and vice versa), and featuring (in anticipation of ‘Hellraiser’) a puzzle disassembled and reassembled, a board decorated with nails, infernal visitations, and a man being slowly skinned alive – as well as Barker himself, naked and erect, dancing like an ecstatic dervish. DVD Extras Rating: 9/10


“This isn’t for your eyes”, says the demonic Cenobite – but he is so very wrong about Clive Barker’s must-see horror.