Day 21: Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker

Starring: Doug Bradley, Sean Chapman, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Andrew Robinson, Oliver Smith

Runtime: 94 minutes

A bizarre and nightmarish movie director by novelist and short story writer Clive Barker, who has written and directed a number of other eccentric movies based on his own work, one doesn’t know quite what to make of Hellraiser. It hasn’t been given the kind of social or cultural analysis that a number of other horror films have. This can’t be because of a perceived lack of artistic merit, because critics have taken on films they don’t perceive as that artistically developed, such as Friday the 13th.

The story centers on a “puzzle box” that opens to a hellish realm of sadomasochistic torture. Apparently, people are drawn to it, thinking that it will open up enhanced carnal pleasure, but instead traps them in this alternate realm. The “demons” who control this realm, known as the Cenobites, are grotesque versions of humans, including the well-known Pinhead who seems to be their leader (who plays only a small role in this entry, but would come to play a larger role in sequels).

It would seem that this realm is some sort of alternate dimension, rather than a metaphysical realm corresponding to the Judeo-Christian Hell (although it may explain the invention of that idea). One is “tricked” there by the Cenobites, physically taken there, rather than God damning one’s spirit there after death as the result of sin (though evil people are more likely to be drawn there). And no God or “the power of Christ compels you!” is invoked here, just the ability to solve the puzzle box.

While Pinhead and his nightmare domain are scary enough, more disturbing is Frank (played by multiple actors), who has escaped them, and is trying to return to life, assisted by his brother’s wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who is just as degenerate as he. He’s more grotesque than the Cenobites in his half-formed body of blood and muscle, and his sexual advances toward his niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), are quite unsettling. It’s up to Kirsty to solve the puzzle box and send Frank back to the Cenobites. How Kirsty figures out the box’s workings isn’t explained.

It’s a film of startling images, even if the story is a bit muddled, and some of the acting is a bit amateurish. The second film is a worthy sequel, perhaps even more disturbing. Frank and Pinhead return, although Julia takes on an even more sinister role, and a new Cenobite made from a demented doctor is perhaps even scarier than Pinhead himself.


The stuff of nightmares: the Cenobites.


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