Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines, Frank Baker, Doug Bradley
Written by: Clive Barker, based on his novel
Directed by: Clive Barker
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93
Date: 05/12/1987

Hellraiser (1987)

4 Stars (out of 4)

It's a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1980s, most highbrow critics declared the horror film dead. The kinds of horror films we got then were usually comedies in nature, like Evil Dead 2 (1987) or Re-Animator (1985) or were full of sudden "jump-scares" that don't date very well, like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or An American Werewolf in London (1981). Not to mention that most horror films were either blatantly ignored, or roundly panned. But the astute viewer can find many gems among 80's horror films, serious efforts that rank with the best. Clive Barker's directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), is one of them.

In its day, Hellraiser was trashed by almost every mainstream movie critic. It was a low-budget film from a small studio with a no-name cast and a first-time writer/director. Barker's only claim to fame was three volumes of excellent short stories called the "Books of Blood." On the cover of each was a quote from Stephen King that read, "I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker." This movie was just asking for bad reviews.

That quote more than anything else catapulted Barker's career. Since then, he has gained a following of his own. And so has Hellraiser. The film spawned four sequels (the third and fourth are completely worthless) and it has remained alive on video, developing a well-deserved cult following. Indeed, much of the S&M shown in the film has caught on in the 1990's with personal mutilation, scarification, branding, and piercings.

The movie's most famous and memorable character is Pinhead, who is seen on all the video boxes, posters, and artwork. Many fans may not realize that Pinhead is in Hellraiser for all of about four minutes, (being generous). Pinhead is one of four "Cenobites" who come from another dimension whenever anyone solves a small metal puzzle box (not unlike a Rubik's Cube). They administer intense forms of S&M, pleasure derived from pain and vice/versa. Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) solves the box and becomes a prisoner of the Cenobites. He's freed when his sister-in-law (Claire Higgins), whom he has had an affair with, and brother (Andrew Robinson) move in to his house and spill blood on the floor. Uncle Frank convinces the sister-in-law to kill more people for more blood so that he can be restored to normal. Meanwhile, Uncle Frank's niece (Ashley Laurence) has gotten ahold of the puzzle box and has let the Cenobites out again by accident.

Hellraiser seems inspired more by the Italian horror masters Dario Argento (Suspiria), Mario Bava (Black Sunday), and Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) than by any American horror films. That it takes place within a family unit and not just a group of teenagers in the woods gives it an extra layer of meaning (not to mention blood ties). The movie lays on symbols of family and marital relations, such as the scene in which the good brother cuts his hand (thus spilling the blood that Uncle Frank needs) while hauling his marital bed up the stairs.

Though it does have its share of gore and shocks, the movie uses its storytelling and its ideas to create a feeling of dread rather than making us jump at the boogie man. We're on the edge of our seats with a feeling of uninhibited terror the whole time. Barker lets us in on just a hint of what the Cenobites' world is really like, and it's terrifying. A scary-looking homeless man is on hand to let us know that everything as we know it could be swept away in a heartbeat. Such is the world of Hellraiser.

The new Anchor Bay DVD brings us the definitive version of Hellraiser in both widescreen and panned-and-scanned versions and in Dolby Digital 5.1 and THX. The disc contains commentary by Barker and actress Ashley Laurence, moderated by Pete Atkins (though Barker ends up doing most of the talking anyway). A short featurette, Resurrection, interviews many of the artists involved with the film, and is even more revealing than the commentary. The disc also features a still gallery and the theatrical trailer. Overall, it's an outstanding package, worthy of a great horror film.

In 2007, Anchor Bay re-issued this film in a new 20th anniversary DVD. It includes all the aforementioned extras, plus new interviews with the cast and crew, TV spots and first and final drafts of the screenplay in PDF format on DVD-Rom. There's also a fun Easter Egg on the "extras" screen.

Movies Unlimtied