Screenplay : Peter Atkins (story by Clive Barker)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1987
Stars : Andrew Robinson (Larry Cotton), Clare Higgins (Julia Cotton), Ashley Laurence (Kirsty Swanson), Sean Chapman (Frank Cotton), Oliver Smith (Frank the Monster), Robert Hines (Steve), Doug Bradley (Pinhead), Nicholas Vince (Chattering Cenobite), Simon Bamford ("Butterball" Cenobite), Grace Kirby (Female Cenobite) (Philippe)
Although made on a low budget at a time in which the British horror film industry, after having achieved international heights with the Hammer film series in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, was almost nonexistent, Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" was a much needed success. Against the odds, Barker produced a unique, imaginative, if not somewhat stomach-churning, work that has since earned aplace in the annals of horror cinema. Fusing slasher films with demonic fantasies and an overall tone that seems based on underground S&M performance art, Barker managed to create a freaky, disturbing horror flick that still has a loyal following and has led to four sequels (ever-decreasing in quality, of course).
When "Hellraiser" was made in the late 1980s, Barker was known primarily as a prolific horror and fantasy novelist and short-story writer, as well as a sometimes screenwriter ("Underworld," "Rawhead Rex"). "Hellraiser" marked his first foray into the director's chair, a position in which he was comfortably suited. While his visionary tendencies are often audacious and twisted in a taboo-breaking kind of way, Barker is a notably literate horror filmmaker, and "Hellraiser" is as scary for its ideas as it is for its gruesome visuals.
The narrative of "Hellraiser" is essentially an overwrought family melodrama gone insane. There are all kinds of inner familial tensions, including the Freudian tension of a daughter whose deceased mother has been replaced with her father's new wife, as well as cultural tensions as the father and daughter are American, but the wife is English, and the whole family moves to Hampstead. (The film doesn't appear to be British, despite all the location work, mostly because the American financial backers insisted that the minor characters be dubbed with American accents.)
The story concerns a man named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) who, in his desire to push the envelop, buys a mysterious Chinese puzzle box that, when solved, turns out to be a secret gate that unleashes the Cenobites, four demonic beings from another dimension whose principle purpose is inflicting pain. Physically, Frank is essentially eviscerated by the Cenobites, but he is not killed forever.
Frank begins to regenerate himself from the inside out when his brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), and Larry's wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into the family home in which Frank unleashed the Cenobites. A flashback shows us the Frank and Julia had once had a sexual liaison, and Frank manages to convince Julia to lure unsuspecting men back to the house and kill them in the attic so he can feed on their blood in order to regenerate his body. In some ways, this narrative plays like a twisted parody of melodrama: Larry lives happily in his new home, completely unaware that brother Frank is hiding in a semi-formed state in the attic, feeding off the blood of murdered strangers supplied by Julia, who deviously sneaks away from time to time in order to spent a few precious moments with her skinless lover.
The narrative takes a turn when Larry's daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), becomes involved. Kirsty discovers the terrible secret in the house, but by the time she tries to warn her father, it is too late. Frank is in firm control, and Kirsty's only hope is to unleash the Cenobites in the hopes that they will finish off Frank once and for all.
The plot of "Hellraiser" is typical of Clive Barker: In many ways, it is utterly absurd, but it is the perfect frame on which he can hang all the gory visuals that are his stock in trade. "Hellraiser" is filled with unforgettable images, most of which revolve around some kind of violent sadism involving chains and hooks and nails. The Cenobites, led by the aptly named Pinhead (Doug Bradley), are a strange combination of the human and the mechanical. Their bodies are a catalog of disturbing physical wounding, from eyes sewn shut to a gaping throat wound that is kept open with surgical clamps.
Most of these visuals are straight out of Barker's imagination (he sold the film to its backers based mainly on his early sketches of the characters and situations), and subtlety is not one of his strong areas. Even in the nonviolent scenes, Barker's tendencies toward overkill take over. For instance, when we see in flashback Julia and Frank committing adultery, not only do they do it on Larry and Julia's marriage bed, they do it right on top of Julia's wedding dress!
Given its visceral nature, "Hellraiser" is definitely not for all tastes. Yet, it falls into a long line of disturbing and transgressive art that has its roots in violence and disfigurement, from the French Grand Guignol theater of the late 19th century, to the performance art of Mark Pauline's Survival Research Labs in which the biological and the mechanical are combined in over-the-top displays of battle. When he made the film, Barker was interested in crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, and scaring viewers, and in all three areas he succeeded.
For the sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Barker stepped back into the role of executive producer and allowed director Tony Randel (who worked as an editor on the first film) and screenwriter/novelist Peter Atkins (working from a story Barker wrote) to carry the load. Unfortunately, "Hellraiser II" suffers the fate of most sequels: it is both derivative and repetitive.
The narrative starts literally hours after the last events in "Hellraiser." Kirsty finds herself in a hospital that is run by Dr. Channard, a psychiatrist who hides a secret obsession with the occult. Naturally, once he hears Kirsty's "fantastic" story, he cannot wait to get his hands on the Chinese puzzle box and unleash the Cenobites for his own pain/pleasure.
While in "Hellraiser" the Cenobites invaded our dimension, in "Hellraiser II" they turn the tables by playing on their own turf. Thus, the majority of the film involves Kirsty and another patient at the hospital, a mute girl named Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) who happens to be adept at solving puzzles, running through endless dank corridors of the Cenobites' hellish dimension, eventually finding themselves face to face with Leviathan, the Lord of the Labyrinth. Whether or not Leviathan is Satan and the Labyrinth is hell in the Judeo-Christian sense is never made quite clear. In fact, despite the use of "hell" in the titles, both movies go out of their way to disassociate themselves from any Judeo-Christian meanings. The shocks are more sci-fi than theological.
This basic narrative set-up allows Randel to top the gruesome visuals in first film, but it doesn't leave much room for either character expansion or plot development. The screen is filled with grisly images of flayed bodies, psychotics slashing themselves with razors, and blood gushing from all directions. Julia, Kirsty's evil stepmother, is resurrected by Dr. Channard in the same manner as Frank was resurrected in the first film, and she proceeds to take him to the Cenobites' dimension with her in order to make him one of them. About the only piece of narrative interest offered by "Hellraiser II" is the explanation of where the Cenobites came from, which involves a ghastly depiction of how Pinhead got all those nails driven into his scalp and face.
"Hellraiser II" certainly disappoints after "Hellraiser," mostly because it lacks the more literate sense of horror that Barker gave to the original. It maintains the over-the-top surrealism, but it loses the character edge. Of course, to some fans, the more gory and visceral the movie, the better. For those viewers, "Hellraiser II" will seem a worthy follow-up. Those looking for more will find themselves disappointed.
|Hellraiser / Hellbound: Hellraiser II Limited Edition Tin Box Set|
|"Hellraiser" and "Hellbound: Hellraiser II" are available from Anchor Bay in a special limited edition tin container that also includes a 48-page full-color collector's booklet and two 5" x 7" theatrical poster replicas. "Hellraiser" is also available as a separate special edition DVD (SRP: $29.98).|
|Widescreen||1.85:1 / 1.33:1|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Audio commentary with writer/director Clive Barker and star Ashley Laurence, moderated by Peter Atkins
Original theatrical trailer
THX OptiMode test signals
Hellbound: Hellraiser II:
Audio commentary with director Tony Randel, star Ashley Laurence, and writer Peter Atkins
Featurette: "Lost in the Labyrinth"
Original theatrical trailer
THX OptiMode test signals
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Both films feature new THX-certified anamorphic transfers in either their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.85:1 or in 1.33:1 pan-and-scan. While both transfers are good in terms of color, contrast, and level of detail, both films seem exceptionally grain y. This is particularly evident in the darker scenes (which take up most of both movies), which are unable to sustain any consistently solid black levels because the grain is so apparent. The brighter scenes (what few there are) come off much better, as the grain virtually disappears and the image retains a smooth look. The images on both discs are generally sharp without any noticeable edge enhancement, and there were no instances of digital artifacting. Above all, though, this new anamorphic transfer is an improvement over the previously available "Hellraiser" DVD, which was too soft and lacked in detail.|
|The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks for both films are uniformly excellent. If the video on these discs isn't quite up to par, the audio just about makes up for it. "Hellbound" is particularly impressive, with a wide array of demonic sound effects--hissing voices, cracking walls, rolling thunder, chains clinking together, flesh being ripped from the bone--all of which creates a frighteningly convincing aural environment with excellent imaging and directionality. Once the movie moves to the underworld, the surround speakers are given a full workout, as is the LFE channel.|
|Anchor Bay has equipped this special box set with a nice array of extras. Each film comes with a fine audio commentary. The "Hellraiser" commentary comes from writer/director Clive Barker and star Ashley Laurence, and it is moderated by Peter Atkins, the horror novelist who wrote the screenplay for "Hellraiser II"; the "Hellraiser II" commentary keeps Laurence and Atkins, but replaces Barker with director Tony Randel. Both commentaries are interesting and informative, although I tended to prefer the one on the first film simply because Barker is so literate in his discussion of his work. Each disc also includes a short making-of documentary (the "Hellrasier" documentary is roughly 22 minutes long, while the "Hellraiser II" documentary is about 15 minutes long). These include extensive interviews with just about everyone involved in the films, from the actors to the special effects technicians to the musical composer. They offer a good amount of insight into the films, mostly through the interviews (unfortunately, there is virtually no on-set or behind-the-scenes footage from the production). On a side note, I think I could have done without the footage of sadomasochistic performance artists who have been inspired by "Hellraiser" to dangle themselves by chains and hooks in their flesh. Each disc also includes the film's original theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and the now-expected THX OptiMode signals for calibrating your home entertainment equipment.|
©2000 James Kendrick