Decadent thrill-seeker Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) acquires a strange puzzle box, and upon opening it is swept away to another dimension. Months later Frank’s estranged brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the family home. Frank, however, has returned – and needs the help of Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins) to escape the demons that pursue him.
Hellraiser has a well-earned reputation as one of the great horror films of the 1980s. Written and directed by Clive Barker, and based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart, it stands in sharp contrast to other horror films of the period. While American horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th pushed things to deliberately humorous and silly extremes, Hellraiser wraps an imaginative and deeply sexual mythology around an intimate family-based thriller. A woman has married one man but was sexually attracted to his brother. They shared an affair, he vanished, and now he has returned demanding she be his accomplice in a series of murders. Take the horror elements out and it could operate as film noir.
Thankfully Barker left the horror elements in. Frank did not simply vanish: he was dragged into a hell-like dimension where the mysterious Cenobites – all scarification and black leather – tortured him over and over in the most extreme and supernatural of ways. He has escaped, and needs human blood to rebuild his skeletal body, meanwhile his niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is getting too close to noticing what Julia is doing in the top bedroom of the sprawling Cotton mansion.
The Cenobites look tremendous, and of course their leader (known to fans as Pinhead, and played by Doug Bradley) became one of the most immediately recognisable icons of screen horror. They are deliberately underplayed. Pinhead may show satisfaction in torturing humans, but it does not really extend to glee or enthusiasm. Viewers new to Hellraiser may be surprised how little the Cenobites feature at all. It shows remarkable restraint, and makes them particularly effective when they do arrive.
The bulk of the horrors come from Frank, a disturbingly wet and juicy mess of bone, flesh and oozing slime. Every murder gets him closer to having a whole body again, which makes each successive murder another opportunity to showcase some wonderfully unpleasant combinations of puppetry and prosthetic effects. The make-up in this film is tremendous, and thanks to a talented cast playing the film in a serious and realistic manner it is an easier sell to make to the audience.
Barker employs a wonderful combination of sex and violence, giving the film an aesthetic and tone that seems simultaneously alluring and repellent. The Cenobites are a personification of sadomasochism, with Frank a tragic antagonist whose hunt for the ultimate sexual thrill took him to a place too extreme even for his tastes.
It is admittedly an imperfect film. Studio-mandated dubbing over some of the supporting cast leaves the film’s in a strange trans-Atlantic no-man’s-land. An epilogue manages to over-stretch the film’s modest budget and come across as weirdly cheesy instead of disturbing. At its core, however, it is a difficult horror movie to fault. The performances are strong. The story is original and effective. The horrific elements are hugely memorable. This is a film that launched an entire franchise of sequels, most of which scrape the bottom of the barrel. That they continue to be made at all comes down to the effectiveness of this brilliant first outing.