“Hellraiser” (1987): A Modern Horror Classic That Still Has the Power to Disturb and Terrify

Not all films that one remembers fondly hold up upon rewatching. Then again, some do. Celebrated horror author Clive Barker’s feature directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), is just as inventive and frightening as is has always been. Based on Barker’s own novella The Hellbound Heart (1986), it tells of a  seeker after extreme pleasures who inadvertently finds himself held captive by demonic figures, the Cenobites, in their realm of unending pain and pleasure. When he manages to escape, albeit in the form of a skinless “corpse”, he enlists the aid of his sister-in-law/lover to help him become whole again before his jailers can find him and drag him back. A great casts helps give life to Barker’s iconic characters. The effects work is excellent, being up to the task of replicating the author’s disturbing visuals onscreen, and, for the most part, they are still effective 30 years on. Most importantly, Barker’s unique blend of horror, eroticism, and mysticism still has the power to terrify and fascinate in equal parts. Hellraiser is a creepy frightfest well worth revisiting.

Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is looking for the ultimate sensation. He is bored with normal sex and even the most extreme fetishes no longer arouse him. In a foreign market, he purchase a puzzle box that is said to be the key to a dimension of extreme experiences. In a room in his old family home, Frank solves the puzzle box and summons the Cenobites, otherworldly creatures who are there to fulfill his desires, but perhaps not in the way he expects. They drag him off to their realm where there is no distinction between pleasure of pain. Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) is moving into the old family home with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who, unbeknownst to Larry, is the former lover of Frank. During the move, Larry accidentally cuts his hand, and his blood falls through the cracks in the floor, inadvertently resurrecting Frank and allowing him to escape from the clutches of the Cenobites. Unfortunately for Frank, he is revived as a skinless corpse (Oliver Smith). Frank reveals himself to Julia so she can help him lure victims to the house so he can use their blood to finish regenerating. Complicating matters is the presence of Larry’s adult daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is suspicious of her stepmother Julia. How far will Julia go to help her lover, will Kirsty find out her stepmother’s secret, and will Frank regain his skin before the Cenobites realize he is gone and come to claim him?

Barker’s story is full of great characters, and the cast is fully up to the task of embodying them. Andrew Robinson is excellent in what is essentially a dual-role as Larry and Frank in Larry’s skin. For much of the runtime, Robinson’s Larry is a clueless milquetoast who has no idea at all what is going on under his own roof. One can almost feel the bile rising in his throat as he fights to keep from passing out after cutting his hand. Later, Robinson’s Larry takes on a much more sinister aspect. The difference in Robinson’s body language and delivery between these two Larrys really sells this transformation to the audience and makes the later version of the character all that more menacing. Claire Higgins has a similar arc with Julia. She makes it easy to see the character’s smooth transition from someone guilt-wracked over the affair with Frank to someone who can use a claw hammer to murder a man in cold blood. Oliver Smith’s skinless Frank does not have much of a character arc as Larry or Julia, but Smith makes the most of the character, giving him a strong and threatening aura that still emits a strange sensuality in spite of his skinless nature.

While the human characters are noteworthy, by far the characters most associated with the film are the Cenobites, the self-proclaimed “explorers in the further regions of experience”. Neither good nor evil, these amoral angels/demons have a distinctive look and style, sporting BDSM-inspired leather outfits and body modifications in the extreme. Of the Cenobites, none is more iconic than the leader, Pinhead, as played by Doug Bradley. He may not have much screen time, but Bradley makes Pinhead a commanding presence that dominates the scenes that he is in. Bradley’s strong performance as Pinhead is probably a major contributing factor to the popularity of the character and why he has become the face of the franchise.

Most of the effects work in Hellraiser is practical which allows it to still be as effective today as it was when it premiered in 1987. Bob Keen’s makeup design work on the Cenobites and skinless Frank  is excellent and really fulfils Barker’s disturbing vision of the characters, and it is easy to see why it won a Saturn Award . Bodies and body parts abound in the film, include a rather spectacular scene wherein a body is torn asunder via chains and meathooks. Even the smaller makeup effects moments, such as when Larry cuts his hand on an exposed nail, are well done and still have the power to make the audience cringe in pain. The Engineer, a floating creature that shows up at a couple of key moments, is a little less effective, not quite having the same level of articulation in its face one would want. It is still frightening, nonetheless, but its impact is slightly reduced by its more puppet-like appearance. The only effects that really feel dated are the rotoscoped “electrical” effects used when the puzzle box is manipulated. These come off as cheap and cheesey, but they are used sparingly so do not really detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.

The real question is, “How scary is Hellraiser after all of these years?” The answer: Still pretty damn scary. While goopy and gruesome (in the true sense of the word), the film’s strength lies beyond its power to churn one’s stomach. Barker uses a simple technique of light shining through the cracks between wall boards to signal the impending arrival of the Cenobites when they are summoned. Each time this occurs, the audience tenses up, knowing things are about to get bad for the characters. Kirsty’s encounter with the Engineer is as frightening as it is mysterious; being chased down an ancient hallway by a inexplicable monster is classic nightmare material. By far the creepiest moments are those that involve skinless Frank. Julia’s “reunion” with Frank, when she first discovers his resurrected form in the house, still raises gooseflesh even after multiple viewings. Frank’s skeleton, barely clothed in a thin layer of muscle and flesh, crawling from the shadows and reaching for Julia is truly terrifying.

Hellraiser deserves its status as a modern horror classic. Writer/director Clive Barker successfully translates his unique and disturbing mix of eroticism, death, madness, body horror, and mysticism from page to screen. His iconic characters are well served by a mostly strong cast, especially Doug Bradley’s turn as breakout character Pinhead. Excellent practical effects still hold the power to horrify and repulse, recreating Barker’s signature bizarre written descriptions onscreen. Still just as terrifying and nightmare-inducing as it was when it came out, Hellraiser is indeed a horror  classic worth revisiting.

Hellraiser 4.8 out of 5 stars (4.8 / 5)

Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.