I’m a little ashamed to say that until last weekend, I had never seen Hellraiser. I had certainly heard about it. When it came out back in 1987, I can remember there being a bit of hype about how scary, violent, and gory it was. Stephen King was quoted as saying that writer/director Clive Barker was the future of horror. Hellraiser was a suggested alternative to Jason, Freddy, and the other slasher movies produced in the 80’s. As I enjoy a good slasher film, it might have been this claim that ultimately turned me off Hellraiser and lead to the 25+ year delay in me viewing it.
In Hellraiser’s opening scenes, we watch a man, who we later come to know as Frank, purchase a fancy Rubik’s Cube and play with it while surrounded by candles in an otherwise dark and empty room. Suddenly chains ending in large hooks shoot out of the dark and pierce Frank’s skin. We are then shown a room full of chains and hooks and…fleshy bits. Within this room two of the most extreme goth kids you’re ever likely to see sort through the human gristle littering the floor in search of parts for their face puzzle.
The goth kid with pins all through his face plays with Frank’s Rubik’s Cube and suddenly the room is empty.
I hope I’m supposed to be confused at this point.
We segue back into more familiar turf as a couple enter the home where, presumably, the previous odd scene took place. Before they even enter the house, it is made clear that Larry and Julia are in a loveless relationship as we hear them bickering from the other side of the front door. It turns out that Larry (played by Andrew Robinson who’s Garak was, for me, the best part of ST:DS9) is the brother of Frank and this is their family home.
Larry and Julia plan to live in the home (there is some vague comments about needing to get away from the city but nothing is ever made clear). Julia is less than impressed although it seems it is Larry’s company that bothers her more than the physical surroundings. This is a bit odd as the house is an absolute disgrace and should probably be condemned. The walls are stained and cracked, everything is filthy, the kitchen is full of rotting food overrun with maggots and every other type of insect, and there are numerous rats. What is even stranger is that Larry comments that his daughter, Kirsty, will absolutely love the place.
Despite the condition of the house, the couple move in with no attempt at repairs and minimal clean up. Moving in seems to consist almost entirely of unpacking a large quantity of mason jars and candles and dragging one bed upstairs. For this they have hired two movers who ogle Julia until Kirsty arrives at which point they turn their attention to the younger of the two women.
Julia takes a break from unpacking mason jars to wander around in the attic and have flashbacks. Apparently she had had an affair with Frank, although affair may be too strong a word for what appears to have been a single encounter. This affair may have happened just before Julia and Larry were married.
Despite the brevity of the affair, it had a profound effect on Julia who swore to Frank that she would do anything for him. For Frank’s part, his grumbled comment on their tryst is that “it is never enough”.
Back in the present, Larry scrapes his hand badly on an exposed nail while trying to wrestle the mattress up the stairs. He goes to Julia for help and in the process drips blood on the attic floor. The blood somehow brings Frank back from wherever he has gone. In what is the coolest scene of the movie, we see Frank’s remains grow up out of the floor of the attic and begin stitching themselves back together.
Frank reveals himself to Julia. She is initially horrified but pretty quickly warms to the idea that her ex-lover is a reanimated corpse in her attic. Heck, only a couple of hours after learning this fact, she calmly goes off to bed with a blood craving monstrosity only one floor above her. She is also very accepting of Frank’s direction that she must bring him more blood in order to continue his resurrection. After all, she did say she would do anything for him.
Thus, Julia begins a campaign of luring lonely businessmen home while Larry is at work. (Daughter-in-law Kristy lives elsewhere with her boyfriend, sharing a bedroom but occupying separate beds.) Accepting that Julia is very successful in this endeavour requires more of a suspension of belief than anything else in Hellraiser. She dresses in rather drab skirt suits accented with large necklaces and even larger earrings (this was the 80’s) and exhibits no sensuality whatsoever. The fact that she takes a hammer to the back of each guy’s head and feeds them to a ghoul is practically a mercy killing.
With each victim he feeds on, Frank’s body does rejuvenate until he seems fairly complete other than lacking skin. Feeding Frank murder victims also has the added effect of making Julia’s 80’s perm grow taller and more severe.
Frank, who all along was a little sensitive about his current appearance, begins dressing in a light grey suit that is immediately ruined by the bloody, gooey nature of his skinless flesh. He also takes up smoking. A flayed corpse smoking a cigarette while trying to act alluring to a married woman is a sight to see.
Finally, it is time for some exposition. Frank is a hedonist in the simplest sense. His life had been a quest for physical pleasure ultimately leaving him dissatisfied. He somehow learned how the fancy Rubik’s Cube (known as the Lament Configuration) was capable of opening a gateway into the realm of the Cenobites, extradimensional sadomasochists who practice a severe and supernatural form of ritual mutilation.
Larry’s blood, spilling on the floor of the room from which Frank was taken, somehow allowed Frank to escape the Cenobites’ clutches. Having escaped, Frank is desperate to regenerate his body and get away from the house before the Cenobites realize he is missing and come looking for him. It is not made clear why Frank has had a change of heart although looking at the Cenobites it would seem obvious. In Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart on which Hellraiser is based, it is explained that Frank actually expected the Cenobites to be beautiful women.
Meanwhile, Larry has been completely oblivious to all the goings-on in his house. The room in the attic is pretty much empty with no real good hiding places for a reanimated corpse. Fortunately, after his initial trip up to the attic to spill blood, Larry never seems to have any inclination to return. Even the inordinate amount of time his wife is spending in an empty room does not spark his curiosity. He also never seems to go in the room on the other side of the stairwell as that is where Julia has chosen to discard bodies as Frank finishes with them. One time Larry even comes home early and is looking for Julia as she is dragging a mangled corpse from one room to the other at the top of the stairs. There is never any real sense that Larry will catch her. It is almost as if Larry has forgotten how many floors there are in the house.
But even Larry finally starts to suspect something is not right. He concludes, however, that the issue is that Julia is depressed. He, therefore, asks Kirsty to drop by during the day to offer a sympathetic ear. Of course, Kirsty walks right in on Frank and Julia disposing of their latest victim.
Kirsty fights off Frank (she not only jabs her hand right into his abdomen but also knees him in the groin for good measure) and steals the Lament Configuration from him. I’m not sure how he even has the Lament Configuration as we saw Pinhead retrieve it at the beginning of the movie. Regardless, she gets the box, runs away from the house, stumbles through a small pack of nuns, and collapses.
When she comes to, Kirsty is in a hospital being cared for by an inattentive nurse who is watching footage of flowers blooming on TV. They are joined by an equally inattentive doctor who seems more interested in the fancy box that came in with Kirsty. When he leaves Kirsty with the puzzle box, she plays with it and has her own run-in with the Cenobites including a fifth member or perhaps a pet that is some non-human monster that looks like it was borrowed from John Carpenter’s The Thing.
When it looks like it might allow her to escape, Kirsty rats out Uncle Frank to the Cenobites in a heartbeat. She makes a deal to help the Cenobites retrieve Frank. I can’t imagine why they would need her help anymore then I understand why they insist on hearing Frank confess his identity before they will take him back.
This leads to a final confrontation between Kirsty, Julia and Frank, and the Cenobites. Not surprisingly, the Cenobites renege on the deal but they are surprisingly easy to defeat. Returning the Lament Configuration back to its original shape sends them back to their own dimension (with some crummy 80’s blue electricity effects thrown in). Heck, Butterball is apparently defeated just by some falling drywall as the dilapidated house suffers during the battle.
In the end, I was a little disappointed in Hellraiser. It just didn’t live up to the hype. Not that I am a fan of explicit gore or depictions of sadomasochism, far from it, but it was much less hardcore than I expected. Ultimately, it also wasn’t scary. Seeing hooks sinking into flesh is gross but not scary. The Cenobites are an interesting group and there is some shock value to their appearance but, again, not really scary. Butterball, with his tendency to wear dark sunglasses (admittedly over sewn-shut eyes), is almost comical. The plot line itself was interesting and kept me reasonably entertained but I wish the story had been better fleshed out…pun shamelessly intended.