Monday, October 24, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser' (1987)

In the week leading up to Halloween last year, I wrote about all eight movies in the original Halloween series, and this year I'm taking on another iconic horror franchise that fell on hard times, Clive Barker's Hellraiser series. The ninth movie in the series just came out on DVD last week (check out my review here), and now I'm looking back on the original eight. It's sort of fascinating to realize that this cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel horror series evolved from what is essentially a very personal art film by writer-director Barker (who based the first movie on his novella The Hellbound Heart). Hellraiser was Barker's first feature as a director, and it definitely shows signs of its low budget and Barker's inexperience. But it also has a disturbing intensity that transcends its limitations and a creative, demented design sense for its horrors that's reflective of Barker's background as a painter.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks here is the acting, which is almost universally awkward. Andrew Robinson, who was a great, underrated recurring player on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for years, seems uncomfortable as the bland, smarmy Larry Cotton, who moves with his brittle wife Julia (Clare Higgins) into his creepy old family home. Julia is meant to be cold and distant, but Higgins plays her as aloof and alienated even when she's in the throes of passion with Larry's brother Frank, a sleazy lowlife who's managed to open a portal to hell thanks to a mysterious puzzle box (which would become one of the series' central elements). From that portal spew forth the Cenobites, sadistic creatures who torture and pleasure anyone who calls them via the box.

Despite the dominance of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) as the iconic figure of the series, its version of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, the Cenobites aren't really the villains here, and Pinhead isn't all that prominent (he's credited only as "lead Cenobite," and has just a handful of lines). Frank, who escapes from hell and must replenish his flesh via the blood of the living, is the main bad guy, using Julia's sexual obsession with him to procure victims for his resurrection. Barker's always incorporated themes of sexual deviance into his work, and the Cenobites' promises to provide both pain and pleasure to their summoners make them like the world's most extreme BDSM practitioners. People seek out these sadistic hell demons because they totally get off on it.

But this is still a mainstream horror movie, so wholesome niceness prevails, as Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) takes on Frank and the Cenobites and banishes them back to hell. Although Laurence is the best actor in the movie, Kirsty's kind of a boring character compared to the depraved Frank and Julia, who gleefully mix sex and violence in their volatile couplings. The psychosexual aspects of Barker's world got stripped out as the series progressed into generic horror nonsense, but Hellraiser shows an intriguing embrace of the dark side of sexuality, even if the craftsmanship is often lacking.

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