Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #110
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 11, 1987
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Box Office: $14,564,027 (US)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: Clive Barker
Producer: Christopher Figg
Screenplay: Clive Barker
Based on The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
Special Effects: Cliff Wallace, Geoffrey Portass, Dave Chagouri (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robin Vidgeon
Score: Christopher Young
Editing: Richard Marden, Tony Randel (uncredited)
Studio: Cinemarque Entertainment BV, Film Futures, Rivdel Films
Distributor: New World Pictures, Vestron Video International, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Stars: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines, Anthony Allen, Leon Davis, Michael Cassidy, Frank Baker, Kenneth Nelson, Gay Baynes, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Grace Kirby and Doug Bradley as Pinhead
Suggested Audio Candy
 Christopher Young “Hellraiser”
 Christopher Young “The Cenobites”
 Christopher Young “Resurrection”
I feel duty bound to start this appraisal with an admission that some may find startling. In my entire forty years, I’ve never once read one of Clive Barker’s novels. Shameful right? He needn’t feel aggrieved as I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s either. Never really been much of a bookworm you see. I have watched a number of films based on his novels if that counts and I’m fully aware that it doesn’t. Barker himself has made no attempt to mask his contempt at the ineptitude with which his words have been translated to screen. Of course, there have been the odd highlight (Lord of Illusions, The Midnight Meat Train, Nightbreed), although notably two of the three he directed himself. On the whole, however, the results have been reasonably catastrophic. Personally, I’d sneak the so-bad-it’s-good Rawhead Rex into that list for reasons of guilty pleasure but I’m not convinced he’d appreciate it.
It’s fair to say that Hellraiser (once more directed by Barker) has been the most lucrative interpretation as it has gone on to birth no less than eight sequels. Tony Handel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II certainly brought no shame to the game and I also have a soft spot for Scott Derrikson’s Hellraiser: Inferno which pitted shady detective Joseph Thorne against the Cenobites as they attempted to bring Judgement Day forward like a leper’s birthday. However, on the whole, the decline in quality has been fairly steady and even the mighty Lance Henriksen hasn’t been able to halt the slide into mediocrity. I can see why this must be soul-destroying for him as this particular movie holds a special place in his dark heart as it opened his work up to an entirely new audience and cemented his standing as the undisputed king of the scribes.
Bearing in mind I am not in a position to make comparisons between book and film, it may appear that I am at a distinct disadvantage when undertaking this appraisal. Not true actually as I wouldn’t place a great deal on emphasis on that, even if I had read it cover to cover. You see, I approach any cinematic translation as a fan of horror movies first and foremost and that is my qualification. They’re chalk and cheese when you think of it and there are pros and cons about both. Granted, the written word can state what a character is thinking more eloquently and explain minor detail in far greater depth. However, you never misplace your bookmark in a film and cutting to the chase can be a far less cumbersome endeavor. I make no bones about being a visual creature and, what can’t be spelled out, simply leaves more blanks for my imagination to fill in. Should I get around to reading The Hellbound Heart in the foreseeable, then perhaps I will reappraise this. But for now I shall slide the dubious cube a first time and see where that takes us.
Barker’s film arrived on the scene in 1987 and the horror genre was already starting its swan dive. That said, while slasher was all but dead in the water, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street had dared to stray from the traditional template to offer a more otherworldly approach to horror and this left plenty of space for maneuver. With technology advancing so rapidly, it offered up new apparatus to make these nightmarish visions a reality and the timing of Hellraiser really couldn’t have been much better. Half-decent efforts such as Andrew Fleming’s Bad Dreams and Harley Cokeliss’ Dream Demon were also doing the rounds around this time but Pinhead and his significant others stood barbed head and padded shoulders above these also-rans. When you consider the personnel, it’s hardly surprising as it had such vast scope with the cantankerous Cenobites.
Talk about a rowdy rabble. If I were walking down a back street in Queens at the dead of night and these unlikely lads came bounding towards me; I’d hemorrhage before they even came into eye shot. Indeed, the sound of chattering gnashers alone makes it impossible to buy my little boy a set of wind-up teeth even now (missing out because of his father’s insecurities, tsk tsk). The point I’m making is that this rowdy rabble spook the living bollocks off me and are, without doubt, some of the most authentic depictions of pure evil ever to disgrace our screens. To be fair, Butterball looks like he should be playing tuba in a Tatooine bar but Chubby Checker aside, each is more macabre than the last. Meanwhile, Pinhead leads from the front like William Wallace post-acupuncture.
I’m trying to envisage any face from eighties horror as iconic as he and drawing something of a blank. Study his two main competitors: Jason Voorhees wore that mask well but, on the rare occasion that it slipped off, he looked like he’d been sunbathing in Chernobyl for too long. As for everyone’s favorite burn victim, Freddy Krueger, well he may have initially had the dream world in his hands but he dropped it like a hot potato and, by the end of his “reign”, our only desire was to send him to the stocks and lob lumpy rocks at his stupid smirking phizog. Meanwhile, Pinhead had no reason to hide beneath a mask or grow his fingernails as he had in his possession a face that resembled a labyrinth of long rusted nails and dead glare which perfectly mirrored the agony of the inhumanity he represented.
In the United Kingdom, Hellraiser caused its fair share of unrest and had the BBFC in a spin. I would have paid good money to see their reaction when this baby dropped through their letterbox, wrapped in blood-sodden manacles and decaying strips of epidermis. True to form, they took exception to the film’s flirtation with sadomasochism and the fact that the Cenobites were dressed like they were returning from a fetish party didn’t help their cause any. An X certificate was promptly branded and the film swiftly removed from their sight. Censors really get my goat but my sole consolation comes from envisaging these lily-livered lame brains queuing impatiently for the restroom as they struggle not to choke on their own vomit after being made privy to what the public were often destined not to see.
For the uninitiated, here is the story in a nutshell. Hapless Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) really opens up a can of worms when he acquires this particular puzzle box from a shady dealer in Morocco. While you can remove the stickers on a Rubix Cube, there are no such shortcuts to solving the Lament Configuration and it is strictly non-refundable. He doesn’t really think things out particularly well as he sits cross-legged in his attic attempting to crack the code as, should a slither of his ball sack tease its way into one of the box’s exposed slits, then I hear Moroccan emergency rooms are hellish places. Not that it matters mind as his punishment ends up way more severe. Moreover, the Cenobites are finally gifted the chance to stretch their legs. And stretch them they bloody well do.
Enter Frank’s niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) who becomes caught up in affairs thanks to the duplicitous actions of her stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins). Married to Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), she still has feelings for Frank and they are put to the test when, thanks to a few drops of spilled blood, he is resurrected in their attic looking decidedly the worse for wear. Credit to Julia as, she may be prone to infidelity, but the fact that Frank is missing his epidermis doesn’t dissuade her from agreeing to do any foul bidding on his behalf and harvest a few quarts of blood so as to return him to full health so they can run away together. The problem is that her idea of a new life with her soul mate differs from his considerably and is destined to end in tears. Meanwhile, Pinhead and his unruly mob are only just getting started and, after centuries cooped up inside the box, are simply gagging to try out their new whips and chains.
Hellraiser gets a lot more right than it does wrong and it is easy to see why it went on to become one of the longest-running franchises of modern times. The fact that Barker is holding the reins means that the images conjured on the screen represent his vision first-hand, offering far more accurate insight into the contorted world he fashioned with The Hellbound Heart. However, it’s the Cenobites that make this stand out from the pack and, in particular Doug Bradley’s masterful turn as their ringleader Pinhead. As the eighties drew to a close, truly iconic villains were in painfully short supply and, while the likes of Horace Pinker and Max Jenke were failing to ignite much interest, Pinhead was romping it home. Indeed, he is the last of his breed and Bradley reprised his role seven more times before wisely bowing out before Víctor García’s abysmal Hellraiser: Revelations sent the franchise back to hell.
There can be no arguing that Hellraiser isn’t a classic piece of horror cinema. The Cenobites are a force to be reckoned with and the fact that they endured the great nineties horror crash speaks for itself. If you asked me for films primed for remakes, then Hellraiser would be at the very top of that list. It would need Barker’s involvement of course but I would love to see him overseeing the project and picking the right man for the job of elucidating his words on-screen. Something tells me we’ll be seeing more of these depraved heathens of hell in years to come and, while Bradley’s kinky boots may be large ones to fill, he has set the bar decidedly high and that presents a mouth-watering challenge in my eyes. Now, if you don’t mind, I have one more face of my Rubix cube to complete and these stickers are a bitch to peel off. Where did I leave my smokes?
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Feast your eyes on the veritable banquet spread out before thee. Hellraiser is a vegan’s worst nightmare and there is more raw mutton on exhibit than a butcher’s window, with plenty of deep red seasoning to marinate in. Frank’s introduction to the excruciating world of extreme sadomasochism is the stuff of legends and may be just too overpowering for those of a destabilized disposition. I too possess that temperament, which is why I love horror so, and it sprays here with truly reckless abandon.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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