Hellraiser (1987) – movie review

Hellraiser pic 18

Hellraiser (1987) – 20th Anniversary Edition

Directed by: Clive Barker

Doug Bradleymy top 10 1980s horror
Andrew Robinson
Clare Higgins
Sean Chapman
Ashley Laurence
Nicholas Vince


Hellraiser was both shocking and terrifying when it hit theaters some twenty-seven years ago. I had watched this film on VHS dozens of times since its release and watched the many sequels dilute the impact of the Hellraiser franchise. I was curious to see if the original film still held its own over two decades later.

When first released, this movie felt like you were seeing something completely new, expanding on the imagination much like The Matrix did in the 90’s. Not bad for a considerably low-budget movie void of CGI or modern digi-fx techniques. Upon watching it for the first time in well over a Hellraiser posterdecade I noticed some aspects of the film look dated and reveal the films budget limitations. Electric sparks that are produced from the puzzle box and when the cenobites are dissolved seem layered on rather than in the setting. The wall-walker creature looks somewhat lifeless and rubbery. That being said, the aura and atmosphere of Hellraiser still portrays a dark netherworld of fantastical creatures and concepts.

Watching Uncle Frank regenerate himself from some kind of primordial green goop is a stunning FX sequence. Following that, Frank is a grotesque skinless biology study of exposed muscle, cartilage and sinew for most of the movie. Although difficult to look at for its goriness, I also find it hard not to stare at him with morbid curiosity.

The scene where Kirsty solves the puzzle box and we get our first real good look at the cenobites is truly bizarre. The lipless cenobite, Chatterer, restrains Kirsty by shoving two fingers into her mouth as the eyeless Butterball, watches with enthusiasm. The lone female cenobite speaks with seductive elegance that could be mistaken for an angel’s whisper. Doug Bradley as Pinhead commands the scene with few words but delivered with such a powerful voice it could make one cringe.

The scene where Frank, disguised as Kirtsy’s father, is being pulled apart by dozens of hooks stretching the skin of his face to its limit is disturbing. “Jesus Wept”, he says before exploding into a bloody pile of meat.

MSDHELL EC007One aspect that makes this movie so intriguing is that many little concepts make up the whole. We have the horror of Uncle Frank needing fresh flesh to regenerate himself – We have psycho step mom, Julia, dispatching would-be lovers with a hammer strike to the cranium – we have the cenobite and puzzle box concept – and we have the vagabond threaded throughout the movie, only to find, in the end, that he is actually a winged demon guarding his prime asset, the puzzle box.

This special edition comes with several interviews that bring us behind the scenes of the Hellraiser legend. One comical comment comes from Doug Bradley himself. He says he had the choice between playing the cenobite, Pinhead, or the bit part of a moving man helping to move a bed upstairs in the house. Because he was a striving actor he thought it may be better to actually see his face on the film and he had originally decided to take the bit part! Aren’t we glad he changed his mind? His performance is synonymous with Pinhead.

Much has happened since the release of Hellraiser. The notion of the cenobites became a cult mythos of its own, much the way H.P.Lovecraft stories sparked the Cthulhu mythos. Pinhead became a great icon in horror motion pictures taking his place in infinite stardom with the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. But, Hellraiser offered even more. Behind the vile deeds, gore, guts, and grotesque sights lies a world of wonder, the unbridled awe of a nightmare world that exists within our darkest visions.

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10 thoughts on “Hellraiser (1987) – movie review

  1. This is on my watch list for this month. I haven’t viewed it in years. Mainly because it is one of the few movies that scares the shit out of me over and over! LOL Excuse the language.

  2. Well said. You can really paint a picture. I’m glad this held up for you for the most part. I’ve held off on reviewing this and a lot of my other favorites in fear of not doing them justice. What a masterpiece!

  3. Excellent review of a modern day horror classic.

    Like yourself, I have also seen all of the sequels, with the exception of the most recent one. I actually liked certain aspects of the second and third films, but completely agree with you, that the overall impact that the first film made couldn’t be matched by any of its sequels.

    The special effects and overall look of the film do come across as dated, as compared to the technology that would be available, if the film were being made for the first time now. As you pointed out, however, it is the atmosphere and mood of the film that resonates just as creepily today as it did when it was first released.

    I had the chance to meet Doug Bradley and Ashley Laurence back in 2008, at a fan convention in Manhattan. I got an autograph from Bradley, and was able to speak with him briefly. The line to meet him was long, and no one was allowed to take pictures with him. Laurence, I got to speak to for a longer period of time. She was very nice. She autographed a few things for me, and I was able get pictures with her.

  4. Even by today’s standards I thought that the practical effects were pretty decent. The powerful voice of pinhead is timeless. I imagine this left a bad taste in many theatergoers mouths that weren’t die hard horror fans to begin with.

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