In his original review, Roger Ebert referred to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser as a ‘bankruptcy of imagination’. Despite Ebert’s role in elevating the art of film criticism, he most certainly got it wrong with Hellraiser. There may be many things wrong with the movie, but a lack of creativity is not one of them.
Hellraiser premiered in London on September 11, 1987, and proved to be a modest box office success. It never quite matched the popularity of other 1980’s horror properties. Nevertheless, in the 30 years years since its original release, Hellraiser has joined the ranks of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Elm Street as a long-running franchise. To date, Hellraiser has produced nine sequels, with its most recent entry, Hellraiser: Judgment, released earlier in 2018. Yet none of the sequels have ever matched the quality of a film that remains as intense and inherently watchable since its debut.
Angels to Some, Demons to Others – The Mythology of Hellraiser
Hellraiser was released at a unique time in horror history. As the ’80’s were winding down, the golden age of the slasher film had passed. The Friday the 13th franchise was already on to its sixth film. A Nightmare on Elm Street was releasing its second and, arguably, best sequel. Audiences had become familiarized with the ‘stalk and slash’ narrative of the sub-genre. As a result, film-goers were desensitized or, at the very least, disinterested with the format. Clive Barker released his Hellraiser into this horror market.
Contrary to Roger Ebert’s initial review, Hellraiser marked a refreshing turn for horror. Far from lacking imagination, Barker’s directorial debut introduced audiences to a bizarre, imaginative world that was distinct for the era. Based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart, Barker’s sadomasochistic mythology that included the Lament Configuration and the Cenobites was a far cry from masked killers stalking drunk, promiscuous teens. With themes of lust, obsession, and hedonistic excess, Hellraiser spun a much different morality tale from the Reagan-era conservatism of slasher films.
With themes of lust, obsession, and hedonistic excess, Hellraiser spun a much different morality tale from the Reagan-era conservatism of slasher films.
Of course, it’s easy to see where non-horror fans might have confused Hellraiser with Friday the 13th knock-offs. Indeed, Barker’s vision is similarly known for its graphic violence and gore. But Hellraiser’s demonic world of pleasure and pain differed remarkably from the violence of slasher films. For starters, Hellraiser’s violence is neither tongue-in-cheek nor B-film silliness. On the contrary, Hellraiser is uncharacteristically dark for the era with its flesh-covered pillars, chains, and hooks. From the film’s opening prologue where an unseen figure pieces together the remnants of Frank Cotton’s face, audiences knew they were in for quite a different horror experience.
Hellraiser Does Suffer from Some Incoherent Storytelling
If imagination was not a limitation, Hellraiser is somewhat troubled by murky storytelling. Namely, Hellraiser suffers from some occasional incoherence its plot. It doesn’t match some surrealist gaps in logic you’ll find in Phantasm or Suspiria, but there are points in the movie that do not make much sense. For example, Hellraiser never really clarifies the role of the Vagrant who periodically haunts Kristy and ‘The Engineer’ feels like a random inclusion next to the Cenobites. Granted this likely has more to with the challenge of translating a complex novella to a streamlined feature film.
They Will Tear Your Soul Apart – Special Effects and the Cenobites
Clive Barker’s world of Cenobites and ‘pleasure and pain’ likely required a big budget. Producer Christopher Figg funded filming with a $900, 000 budget. In contrast, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives had a roughly $3 million budget. In addition, Barker was a first-time director with no film-making background. As a result, many of the special effects from Hellraiser, particularly in the climax, have aged poorly. Notably, Barker’s ‘Engineer’ monster is unlikely to impress younger audiences.
Nonetheless, Hellraiser remains one of the most visually striking horror films produced. Barker’s sadomasochistic demons, the Cenobites, are among the most visually striking horror monsters. Make-up artists Bob Keen and Geoff Portass of Image Animation, along with costume designer, Jane Wildgoose, give each Cenobite an instantly memorable appearance. With their leather wardrobe and chains, the Cenobites mixed punk rock aesthetics with S&M sensibilities. The marketing for Hellraiser recognized the distinctiveness of the film’s villains and made Pinhead the selling point. Thanks in no small part to Doug Bradley’s performance beneath the make-up, Pinhead has become an iconic horror film rogue.
Thanks in no small part to Doug Bradley’s performance beneath the make-up, Pinhead has become an iconic horror film rogue.
In addition to the distinct creature effects, Barker and his special effects team conjured up an amazing scene early in the film. The resurrection of Frank Cotton from one drop of blood remains an absolutely transfixing horror film moment. In spite of the lower budget, Cotton’s regeneration still visually impresses. It’s an achievement of macabre imagination that is almost like ‘body horror’ in reverse.
A Sweeping Score Among the Best in the Horror Genre
According to Clive Barker, he originally tried to hire British electronic band, Coil, to produce the film’s music score. Distributor New World Pictures vetoed Barker, which proved to be an excellent decision. Composer Christopher Young was then tasked with creating Hellraiser’s music. Prior to his work on Hellraiser, Young had some experience in the horror genre, composing scores for A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Trick or Treat.
A good film score almost becomes like another character in the film. It can add atmosphere and dimension that distinguishes and elevates one film from another. To date, Young’s work on Hellraiser remains a vivid illustration of the heights that horror film scores can reach. Perhaps the best word to describe his work is ‘sweeping, which is admittedly unusual praise for the horror genre. Yet Young’s score here does indeed give the movie a rich, epic feel.
Hellraiser Remains A Distinct Achievement of ’80’s Horror
Upon its release, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser marked a significant shift in the horror scene. To some extent, it heralded a return to more serious horror fare in contrast to its slasher film counterparts. In terms of its tone and treatment of violence, Hellraiser arguably paved the way for more intense and surreal horror films that would follow including Candyman and Jacob’s Ladder.