Some films fill you with a feverish excitement and the ability to endlessly rhapsodise about them like a hyperactive parrot. Hellraiser is one of those films. Since I first saw it in my late teens, the film has equally disturbed and fascinated me.
Written, adapted and directed by Clive Barker from his novella- ‘The Hellbound Heart’, the 1987 film is about a couple who have moved from Brooklyn to England. For wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), the move represents an awakening of the past, as the house is where she had an affair with her husband’s brother- Frank (Sean Chapman). While moving a mattress upstairs- Larry’s (Andrew Robinson) hand is caught on a nail. When his blood spills on the floor panels of the upstairs attic, Frank awakens in a horrific state.
To restore his human appearance, he has to feed on strangers and absorb their blood. He makes a pact with Julia to do this to hide from the Cenobites. They’re hellish demons who respond to the call of people who summon them (via a puzzle box). Frank previously escaped from the clutches of their continual torture.
In the context of the late 80s horror scene, Hellraiser is an interesting outlier. The slasher genre was still stoking the genre’s popularity in multiplexes. Films such as Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator were experimenting with the genre’s blurred line between horror and comedy.
Hellraiser in part represents a return to the genre’s roots as well as a bold step forward for it too. The film is fundamentally a Gothic horror picture that plays with eroticism. In fact, in its best moments, the film blurs the line between the Gothic and erotic, essentially making them exist on the same plane of existence.
The premise of a puzzle box that promises a world of indescribable pleasure feels in keeping with the sweeping and sublime qualities of Gothic fiction. At the same time, the central house is a great inversion of the typical looming Gothic mansions that permeate the genre.
Clive Barker’s best moments of direction are when he evokes the typical elements of Gothic stories and harmonises them with the film’s erotic subtext. One moment that stands out is when Julia is engulfed in shadow at the top of a stairway.
In similar stories, there would have been something ominous about a character in this pose. However, Barker frames Julia as someone whose trying to hide the shame of sexual longing that she clings to with desperation.
Despite the film representing the debut of horror icon- Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the character is interestingly quite limited in his screentime. While Doug Bradley casts a looming presence with his detached and forthright vocals as the lead cenobite, Clare Higgins proves to be the centrepiece of the film.
Higgins impresses in her subtle changes of character that manifest throughout the film, such as a small moment where she collects herself after a murder or her imposing physicality when confronting Larry’s daughter- Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).
Through Julia, the puzzle of Hellraiser’s appeal is unlocked with the film being about a marriage in its last throes. It becomes quite drastic that the equilibrium between Julia and Larry gets restored (albeit in a twisted way). In this way, the 1987 picture takes on a dramatic quality, with the lack of intimacy and warmness between the pair becoming quite potent and apparent to the viewer.
However, the reason that Hellraiser has resonated and stuck with me for many years is how it constructs its horror. Most films in the genre involve the protagonist being complicit in the evil that befalls them: going to a forbidden place, reading from an ancient scroll or meddling with something forbidden. On the surface, Hellraiser has this quality with Frank opening the puzzle box. But the film has this eerie quality that the supernatural is so present in the mundane that it could spill into it.
Subtle choices such as echos of Frank’s voice when Julia first walks up into the attic illustrate this. But Barker also has sequences that greatly rely on the juxtaposition between the surreal and mundane, such as a scene where a hobo eats flies while Kirsty is on shift at a local pet shop.
In this way, Hellraiser portrays the every day like a puzzle box that’s slowly being unravelled by the supernatural forces, who plie the characters with seductive promises of new sensations. But like the core of most H.P. Lovecraft stories, the knowledge and reality of such supernatural entities are inherently maddening.