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Hellraiser

Now that we’ve covered the most acclaimed and the most ridiculed movies of 1987, it’s time to turn our focus toward movies somewhere in the middle. It’s time to look at some movies that aren’t remembered for the awards they won, the box office tickets they sold, or the studios they nearly bankrupted, but for how entertaining they are. These are the films that somehow left a mark on pop culture, with fanbases, sequels, and/or reboots that continue to endure 25 years later.

Five movies have been selected for review, each one representing a different genre. We begin with horror. I’ve already covered the genre landmarks of Bad Taste and Evil Dead II, both of which came out in this year. The Monster Squad and The Lost Boys are worthy of mention as well. But looking through the list of 1987 horror movies, there was one clear champion to represent them: Hellraiser.

It all began with “The Hellbound Heart,” a novella written by Clive Barker specifically as a vehicle for a filmmaking project. Eventually, Barker did indeed get to write and direct a film adaptation of his own work, though he stupidly signed away all the story and character rights after the first film. Barker’s lack of subsequent involvement is one of many likely reasons why the Hellraiser series has been in constant search of direction throughout its 25-year history. Even after a whopping nine films (and a TV series in the works), the franchise is still pretty much completely unknown to pop culture at large. I’ll grant that most laypeople will be familiar with the image of Pinhead, and possibly the Lament Configuration as well, but relatively few know what those images really mean or what part they play in the greater story. Even worse, all of this attention has made Pinhead into the star of his franchise, which is a role the character was never designed for.

Let’s start over and take it from the top. The film opens with Frank Cotton (played in the opening by Sean Chapman) in a seedy-looking marketplace. He’s haggling for purchase of the Lament Configuration, an ornate puzzle box which Frank takes back to his home to use it for… something. The editing is so frantic that it’s not immediately clear what the box does. The only thing for sure is that it somehow involves candles, rusty hooks, disfigured flesh, and a whole lotta blood. In any event, Frank disappears without a trace after using the box.

We later learn that Frank was a sexually deviant motherfucker with a long criminal history who had been using his old childhood home as a hideout. So naturally, everyone is quick to assume that he had either gone to prison or crawled into a shallow grave somewhere. With Frank now out of the way, his brother (Larry Cotton, played by Andrew Robinson) decides to move back into his old country home. Accompanying him is his wife, Julia (Claire Higgins), who previously had a passionate affair with Frank. There’s also Kirsty (Ashley Laurence in her film debut), Larry’s daughter and Julie’s stepdaughter. She’s living on her own away from the house, though she does drop in on occasion.

The plot is set in motion when Larry accidentally cuts himself while moving. It’s a very deep cut that spills blood all over the attic. And where the blood was spilled, Julie quickly discovers Frank (now played by Oliver Smith), freshly back to life and struggling to regenerate himself. The lovers conclude that since Larry’s blood began the process of re-growing Frank’s bone and muscle, more blood is necessary to complete Frank’s return to the living. So Julie starts clubbing to lure strangers up to her attic, and the bodies start piling up from there.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Pinhead or his fellow Cenobites. You’re not alone. I myself was wondering about that through a great portion of the movie. It isn’t until halfway into this picture when we finally hear about the Cenobites and how Frank called them with the Lament Configuration. But he evidently didn’t find the Cenobites’ company very enjoyable after all, since he later managed to escape somehow. So now Frank has to grow a new body by killing several people, so he can keep running and hiding from his former captors.

Basically, Frank and Julie are the villains of this movie, not the Cenobites. In fact, the Cenobites are the ones tracking down the villains.

The important thing to remember about the Cenobites is that they’re not necessarily demons. They’re simply extradimensional beings who experiment with pain, pleasure, and that space where the two of them meet. Granted, they could easily be seen as monsters by people who call them accidentally and/or want to live a painless life. But to total hedonists and masochists who want to experience new and greater physical sensations by any kinky means necessary, or perhaps to total nihilists who can only find solace in destruction, these Cenobites could easily be considered saints.

Then there’s the matter of the Lament Configuration, that device which calls the Cenobites by opening up a portal to their dimension. The choice to make this a puzzle box was a brilliant move. For one thing, it means that anyone intending to summon the Cenobites would have to put a great deal of thought and effort into it. For them, communing with the Cenobites would be a salvation that must be earned. As for those who are ignorant or frightened of everlasting torment, it’s still a puzzle box. On some subconscious level, we all want to know if we’re smart enough to solve some presented riddle, and we wonder what would happen if we pressed a button right in front of us. There’s something inherently tempting about mysteries and gadgets, so making the Lament Configuration into an ornate puzzle box plays beautifully into the Cenobites’ seductive nature. With all of that being said, I think this point might have been stronger if the puzzle wasn’t so easily solved.

It’s also worth noting that the Lament Configuration doesn’t just bring the Cenobites here, but it can also be used to send them back. Firstly, this means that the Cenobites are creatures that can only be defeated by intellect and calm under pressure. Secondly, it means that the Cenobites have clearly-defined rules. They’re not like Freddy or Jason, who can come back from the dead any number of times. Furthermore, Pinhead and his cronies don’t just slash up random teenagers for their own enjoyment. They’re simply holding up their end of a bargain: Anyone who solves the Lament Configuration ascends to a higher plane of sensation, whether anyone involved likes it or not. Even so, we see that the Cenobites are somehow flexible enough that they can be bargained with to a certain degree.

The Cenobites are remarkably different from most other movie monsters in that there’s a kind of logic and intelligence to how they work. That actually makes them even more scary, since they’re every bit as impossible to kill and that much harder to outsmart. There’s also a unique sort of horror in knowing that the victims are in some way directly responsible for calling the Cenobites down. Even crazier, it’s sort of understandable why the “victims” would want to call them down.

Again, these creatures don’t get a whole lot of screen time in this movie. The film only shows and tells enough to get the audience thinking, and the very concept of them gets increasingly better with prolonged thought.

All the same, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t the Cenobites’ story. It’s really the story of Frank and Julie, though that story is flawed in a number of ways. I may as well start with the casting of Claire Higgins in the role of Julie. Every character in this movie reacts to Julie as if she’s some kind of sexpot, and that’s indeed what the role calls for. For purposes of theme (portraying pain and death in a seductive manner) and for purposes of plot (luring men up to an attic for a one-night stand), Julie needs to be someone so alluring and seductive that men would throw themselves at her. Yet at the same time, Julie is a woman who’s been corrupted to the point of homicidal mania, herself seduced by Frank’s wild sexual energy.

In a phrase, Julie needed to be someone who could charm and kill with equal ease. Unfortunately, that’s not Higgins. I realize that different men have different taste in women, but I fail to see anything warm or inviting or erotic about Higgins’ performance as Julie. In every frame, she looks like nothing more than a barrel full of psychosis wrapped in three feet of solid ice. Not only does this make her plot point about luring men to their doom that much less believable, and not only does it leave the Julia/Frank scenes without any chemistry, but it robs the character of nuance. There’s no purity to her at any time in the film, not even before her initial tryst with Frank. When we first meet her, it’s patently obvious that something’s wrong with her, even if it’s not entirely clear what. At the end of the film, she’s killing her own family members for the sake of her undead lover. It’s a bit of character development, I grant you, but not nearly as much as Barker was obviously going for.

(Side note: Hellraiser opened in the U.S. on the exact same day as Fatal Attraction, in which Glenn Close managed a similar “sexy/crazy” balancing act to gripping and Oscar-winning results. That couldn’t have made Higgins look any better.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Larry. I hated this guy, but not because he’s unsympathetic. I don’t even have a problem with the actor, given how Andrew Robinson played his twist at the climax. No, I hated Larry because he is so BORING. The guy is as milquetoast, wimpy, and stupid as characters come. There’s absolutely nothing to make Larry worth watching. Then again, that may have been part of the point. Larry’s overly simple and unthreatening demeanor makes for a very stark contrast against the kinky, murderous insanity of his wife and brother. It makes me wish that the film spent less time to show Larry’s blandness, and more time to examine why Larry is bland and how his blandness is thematically relevant.

In between the two, there’s Kirsty. Here’s a young woman who’s beautiful without being supermodel-level gorgeous. She’s intelligent, but not a genius. She’s hardworking, but far from successful at everything she does. She loves her dad, but covets her independence. She’s got a healthy sex drive, but she’s not a slut. Basically, Kirsty is a perfectly serviceable teen heroine by horror movie standards, and Ashley Laurence plays her surprisingly well. The problem is that she only barely gets enough screen time to leave a lasting impression. She doesn’t even do anything of any consequence to the plot until an hour in!

In case I haven’t already made it clear, the pacing in this film is dreadful. The film is structured in such a way that none of the main characters give us anything to latch onto for the first half-hour of the movie. We see plenty of scenes with Larry in all his incredible blandness, without any humor or character analysis to provide relief from the boredom. We meet Kristy, but we never get to really know her until the one-hour mark. The movie instead focuses on Julie and Frank, showing every step of their plot in such a way that there’s no horror or mystery. And lest we forget, the word “Cenobite” isn’t even spoken until more than forty minutes in!

Still, I think that the pacing is just a symptom of a larger problem: The editing is pitiful. The scenes are all cut together in a completely disorienting way, particularly during flashbacks. The kills are an even worse case in point. The murders are mostly done via cutaways that only make the scenes less convincing instead of more.

Speaking of which, the effects in this movie could charitably be called uneven. The makeup effects on Frank look uniformly spectacular, and there’s a damn good reason why the Cenobites are so iconic. On the other hand, there’s a particular makeup effect on Larry during the climax that would’ve made Kirsty look a lot less stupid if it was done with any kind of skill. Moreover, the Lament Configuration is given some effects that look pathetically dated. I’d also like to call out the movie’s rubbery fake flesh, which looks especially bad in close-ups.

Yet for all of this movie’s storytelling faults (I didn’t even get to the nonsensical magic hobo), I still found it quite scary in a lot of places. That’s probably due to the premise more than anything else. The Cenobites are so wonderfully constructed in theory and in practice, and Kirsty is so easy to root for during the climax, that I couldn’t help but be engaged. As for Frank and Julie, they’re a pair of bloodthirsty maniacs motivated by mutual lust and a band of interdimensional sadomasochists chasing after them. What’s not to be afraid of? Kudos are also due to Christopher Young’s awesome score, which played a big part in delivering the movie’s suspense.

Hellraiser is a movie dying for a remake. It’s a movie with a ton of brilliant ideas for a horror film, just waiting for a filmmaker and a budget to do them justice. The movie was iconic enough to spawn a 25-year franchise as it is, so just imagine what it might have done with tighter pacing and a better cast! In any case, the existing film is still more than creative and scary enough to hold up. It’s definitely worth watching, even if Clive Barker’s reach far exceeded his grasp.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Barfolomew:

    Andrew Robinson is the guy who killed this series. The second movie expanded the mythology of the “hell dimension” and its god but he bailed at the last minute and emergency script surgery failed. It probably also didn’t help the labyrinth was made of cardboard.
    The magic wino is just there to recover and protect the box so it gets to its next user. What’s the confusion?

  2. Comment by AvatarIII:

    RE: a remake, it’s been appropriately in development hell for a few years now,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellraiser#Remake

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