Okay, imagine that you’re a teenager again (16-ish). You just walked into your friendly neighborhood video store to rent a VHS tape for the weekend (yes, I’m old). You stride on over to the horror section ready to grab Friday the 13th: Part 3 again, because hey, it’s a safe bet. Today, however, something stops you dead in your tracks. It’s a poster of some grim-looking dude, with freaking NAILS in his head. He’s holding a mysterious box, and he’s promising “to tear your soul apart!” This, dear friends, was my introduction to the world of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
Did I rent it? You bet your sweet horror-loving ass I did! We barely waited until my parents had left for the evening, and my fellow long-haired stoner buddies had gathered before I popped that little gem out of the industrial strength rental clamshell and into the top-loader VCR (yes, I’m ancient).
Pressing “Play” that evening forever changed me. I must have re-watched it at least three times that weekend before I hit the “New Release” return date and, sadly, had to relinquish my new favorite film. My benchmark.
Where do I start? From the grimy/creepy Moroccan opening scene, coupled with a soaring score by Christopher Young (this was no typical 80’s synth crap, it lends real epic weight to the proceedings), I was riveted to the screen. Larry Cotton, the quirky, semi-nerdy patriarch looked vaguely familiar (this was the height of 80’s HBO programming, and Andrew Robinson was a staple, Mask and/or Cobra aired every 5 minutes or so), and you could tell right away that Julia (Claire Higgins), his cooly aloof wife, was trouble. And, lest we forget, the requisite “final girl”, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry’s twenty-something daughter, who has not quite warmed to her (possibly) wicked stepmother.
We soon learned through flashbacks, and a cringy mess in the family house, that drifter/grifter/hedonist Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) was into some truly weird shit, in addition to doing the premarital hunka-chunka with his future sister-in-law. His disappearance may not be so permanent…
I won’t detail the entire plot, because if you haven’t seen this classic by now, you should probably turn in your horror card (or you need to run, not walk, and find a copy, like yesterday!). There’s so much to absolutely love—a truly disgusting blood/semen/snot re-amalgamation of Uncle Frank (kudos to Skinless Frank actor Oliver Smith and his disturbing “fish-out-of-water” slither across the attic floor), hooks, chains, dismemberment, claw hammer mayhem, rat evisceration, weird dinner parties, and horny guys who think nothing of following strange women to dusty attics.
What truly makes Hellraiser a classic is the atmosphere it creates! Even with limited actual screen time, when the Cenobites appear, the entire tonal shift and look of the film change dramatically. The lighting, the clanking of the chains, the latent sexual tone, the BDSM outfits, and the complete look of the Cenobites are truly a testament to Clive Barker’s incredible imagination. They are so disturbing because they’re so familiarly human, yet they don’t belong. “Pinhead”, the Hell Priest (portrayed by an amazing human being, Doug Bradley) was an instant horror icon, whose business-like attitude about eternal suffering makes the character all the more menacing.
After my first experience, I immediately sought out everything that Barker wrote that I could get my hands on, making his directorial debut a perfect gateway drug into his gothic, psycho-sexual world.
It’s definitely not perfect. There are misplaced British accents, hinky “Engineer” effects, and a bit of wooden dialogue. Laurence’s hair and wardrobe kick you in the gut with how “80s” it is. But, when viewing Hellraiser for the first time, you get a feeling that you’re watching something subversive, yet accessible, and game-changing, to say the least. Hellraiser (and its companion piece, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2) tops my list of favorite horror films and holds its own, unique, place in my, very jaded, horror heart. Jesus wept indeed.
And, before you ask—yes, I loved the reboot.
What are your thoughts on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser? Tell us in the comments!