Everyone has their own list of “essential” horror movies; films so groundbreaking and recognizable to the genre that you simply can’t call yourself a true horror fan without having seen them. Personally, I try never to encourage the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, as claiming someone isn’t a “true fan” unless they meet your own personal criteria seems rather pompous and obnoxious. And yet, someone professing to be a horror fan while not having seen such an essential flick as Hellraiser … well, it does leave me wondering how dedicated they are to the genre.
Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his bitter wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), have just inherited a nice and creepy old house which once belonged to Larry’s good-for-nothing brother, Frank (Sean Chapman). Frank, in search of the ultimate pleasure, stumbled upon a bizarre puzzle box called the Lament Configuration. Solving it, Frank was met not so much by pleasure, but by Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his troop of grotesque Cenobites. Having been torn limb from limb in the very house Larry and Julia now inhabit, Frank finds himself brought back to life (more or less) by Larry’s spilt blood. Julia agrees to help Frank revive himself with a series of fresh victims to feed upon, as the two had once shared a steamy affair. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), happens upon the Lament Configuration and finds herself forced into making a deal with the vicious Cenobites.
With multiple plotlines running throughout the course of Hellraiser, there’s a whole lot for the audience to chew on. However, with this being a Clive Barker film and all, the erotic forbidden romance between Frank and Julia takes center stage. People like to think of the Hellraiser franchise as this epic masterpiece showcasing all the grim horrors of Hell, which is very much true, but this first film is decidedly a bit more personal. Clive Barker-himself even said it was essentially just a “haunted house picture”, which definitely rings true. The Cenobites, the “mascots” of the franchise, hardly factor into the film at all. Some cry disappointment at this, but just as a lack of Hannibal Lecter didn’t hinder Silence of the Lambs in any way, the short amount of screentime dedicated to Pinhead does nothing negative for Hellraiser.
And yet, despite hardly being in the film at all, the Cenobites practically steal the show (which, of course, leads to their larger roles in the follow-up films). You of course have Pinhead (referred to as “Lead Cenobite” in this film and not technically named until the sequel), portrayed with such a marvelous presence by Doug Bradley that it’s no wonder he stuck with the audience the most. Granted, a lot of his demonic presence came from the voice-altering effects provided in post (for a good laugh, check out those scenes as they were originally filmed, unaltered). I suppose the least impressive of the bunch are the aptly named Female Cenobite (Grace Kirby) and Butterball (Simon Bamford). Both are appropriately Hellish in their own rights, but just don’t stand out as well as their more gruesome cohorts. The immortal fan favorite remains the Chatterer (Nicholas Vince), who has become so popular with the franchise’s fan-following that he’s actually managed to appear in more films than any other Cenobite save for Pinhead. And even when he hasn’t shown up, there have been several other Cenobites designed as an homage to him (the Chatter Beast from “Bloodline” and Torso from “Inferno” for example). And last but not least, you have the Engineer: this gargantuan upside down worm-thing that’s holy s--t totally gonna eat you to death.
Being literate, I took it upon myself to buy a copy of The Hellbound Heart; Clive Barker’s original novella which Hellraiser was based on. Considering that Barker both wrote and directed Hellraiser, it should come as no surprise that the film is an almost entirely accurate adaptation of the book. As far as plot, characters and story structure are concerned, Hellraiser only deviates from The Hellbound Heart in a couple of areas, few of which are particularly crucial. Firstly, Larry is actually named “Raury” in the book; his name change supposedly being a request from the film’s producers to make the movie seem “more American”. Additionally, Kirsty is not Raury’s daughter in the book, but actually his close friend who is secretly in love with him. I actually preferred this change from the source, as it gave Kirsty a deeper connection to Larry, which is a main plot point of the (awesome) sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The Cenobites actually appear less in the book than they do in the movie and feature woefully vague descriptions. The leader of the Cenobites is just some bizarre genderless being while the one we’d think of as “Pinhead” is actually female. Also, the Engineer is presented as the lord and master of the Cenobites and shows up at the book’s climax as a formless being of pure energy… not a screeching leech monster.
Personally, I prefer Hellraiser over The Hellbound Heart just as I prefer Candyman over The Forbidden; I found it took all the elements I enjoyed from the story and improved upon them. However, there were a couple of items from the book which I either liked better or thought added a bit more to the story. In the book, when Frank summons the Cenobites, they make him feel every orgasm he’s ever had in his entire life all at once before tearing him to pieces (as opposed to the movie, where they just eviscerate Frank as soon as they arrive). This was important to the plot in that the spillage of Frank’s semen acted as a catalyst to his resurrection when Raury/Larry spilled his blood in the attic. Additionally, this version better represented the “pleasure and pain unified” concept which the Cenobites are supposed to embody. I suppose the only other detail from the book which I wish had made it into the film is what happened after Kirsty made her deal with the Cenobites. In the book, they give her a time limit and as each minute passes she can feel an invisible “noose” squeeze tighter around her neck. This added a bit of suspense to the climax, as Kirsty struggles to get Frank to verbally admit to his escape from Hell.
Hellraiser is a horror film for people who just like good movies. It has multi-dimensional characters, an engaging plot, some fantastic gore effects and plenty of stellar moments (Frank’s resurrection scene as well as Kirsty’s encounter with the Cenobites will stay with you forever). I definitely can’t argue with the belief that this is an “essential” horror film, as I can’t think of any other E-word that describes it better.