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Oct 24, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 23: HELLRAISER (1987)



I have sometimes wondered why the Hellraiser franchise has never reached the high acclaim that others have - A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Saw - and then I re-watch the first one and it becomes clear.

Hellraiser is not a pleasant experience. It even makes the more recent 'torture porn' genre of Hostel and Saw seem tame in comparison. There are excess amounts of gore, violent demises and an overall theme that indicates extreme (understatement) sadomasochistic sex. The Cenobites, of which 'Pinhead' has become the iconic symbol of this franchise (and for the record, creator Clive Barker hates that name and originally named him 'Priest' so I will refer to him as that as well) are just downright nasty. Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers - although unstoppable killing machines - are all human based, and there are even moments in those franchises where their victims momentarily get the upper hand and strike back either through physical force or with weapons like guns and knives. Not so with the Cenobites. You would definitely not walk up to one of these creatures and punch them, and forget about knives or bullets - useless! These are demons that as one of them mentions, hell won't even take them. That's bad news.

Getting ready for that scene where all the horror icons brawl - like the newscasters in 'Anchorman'
There are nine movies in this franchise however five of those are direct-to-video and the fourth picture has a cinematic 'mark of the beast' with the infamous Alan Smithee director moniker, meaning the director had his name pulled from the credits for fear it would ruin his career. This is the portion of 'Horror Movie a Day' where I plan to follow a franchise with a mini-marathon over the next couple of days - the first four at least, the ones that were released in theaters. I've only ever seen the first two, and watching beyond that could be considered masochism - which the Cenobites would approve of.

You want me to solve your Rubik's Cube from hell? FINE!
Last night was my third time watching Clive Barker's original Hellraiser since 1987, and it is a picture that I feel gets better with repeat viewings. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, and not in the way that Halloween, The Conjuring or The Exorcist do. This is a picture that revels in how nasty it is. There are so many layers to it as well. First there is the introduction of the husband and wife played by Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins. Robinson for me will always be the creepy antagonist from Dirty Harry (also Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Higgins comes off as a complete snob just from her look. This is definitely not a happy or likable couple, enhanced by an extremely long flashback she has of an intimate affair with Robinson's brother, Frank (Sean Chapman in human form and Oliver Smith in 'monster' form). Let's talk about Frank, who for the majority of the picture is the 'big bad' mostly in a grisly, monstrous, blood-soaked form. Then enter the Cenobites, a group of S&M demons who raise the bar of nastiness into the stratosphere. Not a group you want to mess with.

Come on already...I used my safeword!
The picture opens as Frank purchases a strange puzzle box from a mysterious Asian vendor. "It's all yours" he's told, then after his back is turned the vendor adds "it always was". You know the box is bad because when he opens it, Frank does so in a dark room surrounded by a ring of candles indicating some sort of satanic ritual. Things do not end well for Frank as meat hooks rip his flesh to pieces, and the Cenobites appear to appraise the mess of blood, guts and flesh.

When I was a kid my Mom used me as a pincushion because she couldn't afford a real one.
Some time later, Robinson and Higgins arrive at their new home. It is obvious Frank has been there at some point from the maggot covered food in the kitchen (again, this movie goes for the uncomfortable and grotesque whenever possible) and we recognize it as the place where he was ripped to shreds from the strange religious icons scattered about. Why those icons are there is anybody's guess as none of these people seem even remotely interested in religion.

You should see what I do when I solve the Sunday New York Times crossword.
As Robinson attempts to carry a mattress up a set of stairs, his wife finds sexually explicit pictures of Frank and has visions of her own intimate moments with him. Robinson ends up cutting his hand, and weak from the sight of blood comes running into the attic, spilling blood everywhere. As Higgins tends to the wound, neither of them notice that the floorboards are sucking up the blood. Later Higgins returns to the attic to discover a half formed mess of guts, blood and bones that announces itself as Frank. Instead of running screaming like any normal person would do, Higgins sticks around and agrees to bring Frank victims to help him return to human form. Higgins never bothers to ask how he got this way I mean, he cant walk, has no skin and barely any form so why bother with important details like that.

Seriously, how many monsters are there in this picture?
We then see Higgins at a very modern (meaning expensive and yuppie) business-person's restaurant/bar picking up victims for Frank, and the guys she brings back are choice sleazy jerks. Bashing them in the head with a hammer, she leaves while Frank sucks the blood and life out of them. We don't feel sorry for the first few because these guys are anything but pleasant. The more Frank ingests, the more 'human' he becomes. He is still a mess of veins, organs and dripping blood and ooze (he even puts on a white shirt that is instantly soaks up the blood) and needs just a couple more guys to finish the job. He wants to use Robinson, but that is where Higgins draws the line. Higgins is torn between her love for Frank and her repulsion of the beast that he has become.

Frank finally describes what happened to him. He used the puzzle box to open a gateway to another realm, but instead was taken to a place where he was subjected to intense eternal suffering of excruciating pain mixed with pleasure. We see images of a nasty wooden pole covered in meat hooks and flesh, and see Frank, covered in blood and hanging upside down screaming out in pain. It makes the puzzle box one 'Rubik's Cube' you don't want to solve.

Robinson has a daughter by a previous marriage played by Ashley Laurence who doesn't think too highly of Higgins. She stumbles upon 'monster' Frank and to make a getaway, grabs the puzzle box which freaks Frank out. Passing out in the street she comes-to in a hospital - and a weird one at that as a nurse sits nearby watching a TV that features flowers blooming against black - and accidentally opens the box. The Cenobites show up and plan to take Laurence with them, but she talks herself out of it by offering up Frank instead. The Cenobites agree, but if she doesn't come up with the goods, well, she gets a one-way ticket to a fate worse than hell.

Mom, Dad...meet my Prom date.
Once the Cenobites are introduced into the story, this picture really gets intense and that's saying a lot for a movie that is intense from the opening frames. Ashley Laurence is the perfect picture of young innocence, but woman enough to exude a burgeoning sexuality and the thought of the Cenobites getting their hooks in her is worrisome - more so than with Frank, Higgins or Robinson. The men in this picture all seem like scuzzy, sexually deviants or just ignorant of the women's needs. A pair of movers leer at both Higgins and Laurence right in front of Robinson, Frank seduces Higgins to kill for him and goes on about pleasures (when he is able to taste again, he discusses it as if it were an orgasm), Frank comes on to Laurence with the phrase "come to Daddy" and the victims Higgins brings Frank are the lowest form of male pigs imaginable - all but one. The final victim Higgins brings home is just a hapless, harmless business-man who turns and tells her in a guilty tone "I get lonely sometimes" as she leads him to his doom. This is intentional as it is the point where Higgins sees the murder she starts to realize just how low she has sunk and we feel bad for this guy.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and was ripped to shreds.
There are plenty of randomly inserted religious icons. There is a silhouette of a religious statue in the window as Frank is about to perform the box-opening ritual, Laurence runs into a pair of nuns while stumbling in the street and later as Frank chases her, a statue of Jesus falls out of a box and startles her, almost revealing her location. They are startling in a picture that is all about the sins of the flesh.

The makeup effects on Frank as he slowly becomes more 'human' are extraordinary and there is no skimping on blood or gore. Also the scene where he is 'resurrected' is one of the best effects sequences in a horror film I have ever seen. As he has conversations with Higgins, goo drips from his chin and you have to wonder how Higgins' character isn't vomiting constantly around this thing. Even when he gets flesh later, there's still blood and goo, and a sequence where he has a conversation with someone (which I won't spoil) you wonder how she doesn't notice that his head has traces of caked blood on it. There are closeups of meat-hooks ripping apart flesh, a dirty, homeless man eats crickets while a kid pounds on the glass cage of large boa constrictor and the Cenobites have needles and nails sticking out of their flesh. One of them has his gums pulled apart with what appear to be metal wires as he chatters uncontrollably. Even at their worst, none of the A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th pictures ever come close to being this explicit (Saw on the other hand...).

Maybe a white shirt wasn't the best idea...
The movie is an all-out assault on the senses and that's what makes it so great - although it is definitely NOT for the squeamish. The idea that with pleasure there is always pain is almost a deeper examination of the fact that in many horror pictures, the violence stems from people having had or are in the midst of sexual pleasure. They usually end up paying for that intimacy with their lives.

I will admit to fearing the sequels that I will be watching over the next couple of days because they aren't rated very highly. Although the prospect of the disaster that is number four thanks to the Alan Smithee credit does promise a prime opportunity for a truly awful movie which makes for some of the best horror viewing experiences. Regardless, this first Hellraiser film still packs a punch, 27 years after its initial release.