31 Days of Horror: ‘Hellraiser’ at 30

Author, artist, and playwright Clive Barker made his directorial debut on September 18, 1987. He was adapting his own novel The Hellbound Heart, which would become the seminal work of horror cinematic art known as Hellraiser. Barker had no experience as a film director, but after two disappointing adaptations of his work (Transmutations and Rawhead Rex) he was determined to direct his own work and get it right.

In 1987 there was still room for innovation in horror cinema and though the slashers that ruled the day were already beginning to be a bit repetitious, there were still high points. 1987 alone had plenty of iconic films: Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright, John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, just to name a few. No film, though, came out of left field and blew them all off the road like Hellraiser.

When people talk about “art horror” or “elevated horror,” I immediately think of Hellraiser. I’ve never watched a film that felt more like forbidden fruit; it was sexier than your average horror film, it was far more gory than your average horror film, and it was far better written and directed than almost anything in the genre. With one film Barker put himself in a class of quality reserved for the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg at the heights of their collective game. Maybe it helped that Hellraiser was 100 per cent Clive and he knew what to adapt, what to change, and what to leave out.

To really take in Clive Barker the artist is overwhelming, because he has his hands in everything. Books, movies, the art world, video games, comic books, television, the stage—there’s virtually no medium he hasn’t touched and excelled at. Before Hellraiser he was crafting the most thrilling literary horror out there with three volumes of short stories, Books Of Blood, and the novel The Damnation Game.

1986’s The Hellbound Heart was a bloody, sexually charged familial tragedy about an otherworldly puzzle box that held the darkest secrets of pleasure and pain and featured a group of ritualistically mutilated, leather-clad beings from another dimension. For me, reading Hellbound Heart at age fifteen was daunting, as I came from a Southern Baptist home. Though I was no innocent, having long been exposed to a number of lurid and pornographic things, Barker’s short novel felt alive in my hands, like it might do me harm. By the time I read it, Hellbound: Hellraiser II was already on VHS and I was very afraid to rent these films. When I finally did, though, I was not disappointed.

The film stars Andrew Robinson (Larry Cotton), Clare Higgins (Julia Cotton), Sean Chapman (Frank Cotton), and newcomer Ashley Laurence (Kirsty Cotton) as the family and featuring Doug Bradley (Pinhead), Simon Bamford (Butterball), Nicholas Vince (Chatterer), and Grace Kirby (Female, though she would be the only member of the quartet to not return for Hellbound and would be replaced by actress/author Barbie Wilde) as the Cenobites.

Hellraiser opens with Frank in some exotic location purchasing the puzzle box a.k.a. the Lamarchand box, or configuration. He takes it home and sets up a private, candlelit ritual opening of the box—which isn’t easy and takes a great amount of time and patience. Frank is finally rewarded for his patience with hooks on chains that suddenly launch from the box and hook his skin. His bare attic room is physically transformed into a hellish vision of pain and suffering and Frank is literally ripped to pieces before the Cenobites arrive  to revel in the aftermath and to clean up any trace of Frank that was ever there. Almost any trace.

We then jump ahead and learn that Frank co-owns the house with his brother Larry and his new wife Julia, who have come to take full ownership of the house after a prolonged absence from Frank. Also arriving in town is Larry’s daughter Kirsty, but she’s found a job and an apartment in town, to Larry’s disappointment. Julia is incredibly dissatisfied with their new home, as Frank let it slip into squalor and left behind a disgusting mess to be cleaned. We learn through flashbacks that part of Julia’s problem is that being in the house, surrounded by memories of Frank, feelings of lust have re-emerged: we learn that she had a torrid affair with Frank, starting before she and Larry had even married.

She’s drawn to the attic room, haunted by her memories and then by chance, Larry gets an injury on his hand. He runs into the attic room, bleeding on the floor, looking for Julia to help. Unbeknownst to them, or the long departed Cenobites, a shred of Frank remained in the attic, just under the floor boards. Larry’s blood makes contact with the bit of meat and Frank’s painful return to the world of the living, his escape from Hell, begins.

For those who haven’t seen Hellraiser, I don’t want to spoil the surprises you have in store, so I’ll forego the remaining details of the plot and get to Kirsty’s character. Ashley Laurence does an amazing job of bringing Kirsty to life as an innocent bystander to Frank and Julia’s sick conspiracy, a young woman who gets sucked into their living nightmare. Kirsty is smart, capable, and adaptable. As a final girl, I put her on the same level as Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare On Elm Street 1 and 3. Kirsty is an iconic heroine and it’s a hell of a role for a new actress to shoulder, but Laurence shines and then only gets better in Hellbound. 

The rebirth of Frank is one of the great practical effects sequences in horror’s history. It’s an enigmatic, disgusting, beautiful, awful spectacle. Bob Keen and his team took on the task of bringing Frank back, but also bringing the Cenobites themselves out of Barker’s head and into the camera’s eye. What the team created under Barker’s direction was instantly iconic. Regardless of the fact that Cenobites appeared mere minutes, Pinhead became the face of the franchise, despite the fact Julia was pegged as the film’s true villain. (Heather Wixson wrote a fantastic piece with an interview with Keen back in January, for Daily Dead.)

I still find Hellraiser as disturbing and fascinating as I did when I first saw it. The film has a staying power many films wish they had and I credit that to that to a wholly original source in Helbound Heart, the vision of Clive Barker, and the talent of the team he surrounded himself with.

It’s unfortunate that franchise owners Miramax have apparently never given a shit about quality and for years churned out lackluster sequels just to hold on to the rights, sometimes cramming Pinhead into non-Hellrasier scripts just to rush something into production. Fortunately Barker and company has kept Hellraiser in good standing with an amazing run of comics series that have continued with various companies since the late 1980s as well as an official sequel to The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels. 

I don’t know if we’ll ever get another visionary like Clive Barker or another film like Hellraiser. As physical media (supposedly) dies, Arrow Video did God’s work (or perhaps the Devil’s?) with 2015’s release of the Scarlet Boxset that brought together the first three films, a disc of extras, a beautiful two-sided poster, and a 200 page hardcover book. (You can read my Popshifter review for more details.) The set is out of print at Arrow’s site, but still available on the secondary market.

Arrow is also teaming up with Mondo to release a gorgeous steelbook 30th anniversary edition of Hellraiser, while Mondo will be releasing the accompanying Cristopher Young score on vinyl. The steel book will be available on October 30 and both the steelbook and vinyl features gorgeous artwork by Matt Ryan Tobin, which will also be available as a screen printed poster: expect it to sell out. The LP will come on 180g vinyl housed inside an 425gsm gatefold sleeve featuring all new art by Matt Ryan Tobin and featuring liner notes from Clive Barker and a cardboard replica lament configuration box.

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