Movie Review : Hellraiser (1987)
I've been obsessed with horror movies since early childhood. They were the forbidden fruit. The dangerous things my parents wanted to keep away from their son. Because of that, I've seen a lot of disturbing shit before turning 10, yet I've refused to watch the movie Hellraiser for several years. My reasons were simple and shallow: I thought Pinhead, the poster boy of the franchise, was trying too hard to scare me. I get it, you're the bad guy. The nails sticking out of your face gave you up. What other overt shit do you have in store for me? Turned out I was deliberately ignoring a genuine horror classic all these years. I've given Hellraiser my first viewing a couple weeks ago and it is complex, daring, original and hilariously dated. Technical limitations might've shaved some of the edge of it, but Hellraiser is still a very enjoyable cosmic horror movie.
Let's examine what makes it still so efficient and terrifying despite the uproarious use of claymation and animatronics.
Hellraiser is the story of obsessive hedonist Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) who stumbled upon an ancient relic called the Lament Configuration * on a pleasure-seeking trip to Morocco. Frank tries the puzzle box in the attic of his childhood home and summons nightmare creatures from another dimension when he solves it **. Chains start coming out of the walls and the Cenobites almost immediately pulverize his body trying to make him experience the pleasures of absolute pain. When Frank's dorky older brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his two-timing wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the house, Larry unwittingly resuscitates his sex-obsessed sibling by bleeding on the attic's floor and Frank wastes no time getting into Julia's head again. He needs to be fed horny middle-aged men in order to regenerate his body, leave the attic and forever escape the Cenobites. Because they are COMING FOR HIM!
So, what makes Hellraiser interesting and terrifying isn't just what happens on screen. An important part of the movie focuses on the abusive relationship between a strungout woman and a giant tendonitis who manipulates her into killing people. The underlying mythos is the terrifying part of Hellraiser. It is the terrifying part of any well-written cosmic horror story, really. An original mythos rewrites the history of the world and exposes the founding myths of society as simplistic and childlike. God and the Devil. Good and Evil. Pain and Pleasure. The Cenobites have been called angels and demons by men and yet are neither ***. Their existence confronts us to the unknowable depths of our origins and that, my friends, is some of the scariest fucking shit I can fathom.
I wouldn't dare reviewing Hellraiser without slipping a word about pain and pleasure, beautiful people. They ARE an important part of the story after all. They are the polar opposites of experience. What you seek and what you try to avoid at all cost and the philosophy governing the Cenobites' existence is that they are one and the same. They got a hold of Frank Cotton because of his reckless pursuit of the former, which was wonderfully predestined ****. Frank was not meant for a world that shies away from the extremes. The only moment where he is human in Hellraiser is when he actually opens the Lament Configuration and reaches torture/ecstasy/dismemberment. Otherwise he's depicted as a horny memory, a demon, a simile of his brother, he's never fully human. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if posthumous Frank exists at all. But c'mon. It's Clive Barker we're talking about here. Of course he does. If anything, he's a Cenobites ploy to unleash hell on earth. OK, I shut up now.
I loved Hellraiser for all the rights and the wrong reasons. It was somehow perfect for me to watch with two decades of perspective. Not only the technology used for special effects was dated, but some of its ideas would make social studies major scoffs out loud on Salon. I mean, Julia is hilariously strungout and out of control. She has sex with Frank ON HER GODDAMN WEDDING DRESS. What kind of evil wife-to-be does this? Hellraiser can get away with it though because it's from another era. The cosmic horror aspect of the movie still checks out 19 years later, though. Clive Barker's mythos is a tiny bit cartoonish with its BDSM obsession, but the question is raises about the sanctity of our origins is terrifying. The idea that depraved creatures like Cenobites are much closer to the secrets of the universes than us makes us feel silly and insignificant. Whether you've pouted Hellraiser for no good reason like me or you're planning a viewing for Halloween, it is twenty years strong and going. Good cosmic horror doesn't age!
* Also known as Lemarchand's box.
** Which, by the way, looks really easy. It was solved twice in the same freakin' film.
*** The Cenobites are rebranded as "creatures of hell" further along in the series, which complicates my argument but doesn't quite invalidate it. More on that next week.
**** The Moroccan merchant who sold Frank Lemarchand's box muttered under his breath that the box has always been his shortly after he leaves.