Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cenobite Me: "Hellraiser" (1987)

When Clive Barker's demonic horror film came out in 1987, it debuted in the Golden Decade of the Slasher Film, and confounded everyone by succeeding.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) and wife Julia (Clare Higgins) are moving back to Larry's family home. His brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), is nowhere to be found, although he seems to have been staying at the house recently. That's okay, we kind of know where Frank is. In the beginning of the film, Frank has bought a puzzle box that opens doors to a Hell-like dimension, complete with an eternity of physical torture. Frank figured the box out, opened the door, and was taken by some mysterious beings.

As a clueless Larry works on moving into the house, Julia thinks back to her very passionate affair with Frank, the family's bad boy. Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is also hanging around the house, and does not get along with her stepmother. Kirsty has recently acquired a bland boyfriend (Robert Hines), but is still close to her father.

After Larry cuts his hand, and bleeds onto the floorboards in an upstairs abandoned room, a monstrous form of Frank (now played by Oliver Smith) is reincarnated. Julia goes to him, even in his gelatinous form, and begins bringing home strange men so Frank can feed off of their blood and become human again. As Julia begins to enjoy the killing more and more, and Frank readies himself to return, Kirsty stumbles across the duo's dirty deeds, and tries to save her father.

When it was released, "Hellraiser" was quite a sensation. The onscreen gore was repulsive, but it upped the suspense quotient in the same way gore worked for John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing." It has spawned over half a dozen sequels, and a remake is being prepared. Watching it again after all these years, the film still holds up well in most areas.

Clive Barker wrote and directed the film, and it is a product of a demented mind. Who better to bring these characters to the screen than the man who thought them up to begin with? For being his first directorial effort, his camera is very assured, with the only technical problems being with some of the special effects. Christopher Young's musical score is sweeping in its orchestrations, and not '80's synth with a catchy beat.

Clare Higgins shines as Julia. Julia is a cold-hearted woman you hate immediately, and Higgins makes her even more hateful without camping it up or Barker giving her a bunch of "funny" lines a la Freddy Krueger. Andrew Robinson's Larry seems a little too clueless at some points, although he is irritating enough that you understand why Julia is drawn to Frank. Laurence is good as the underwritten Kirsty.

Doug Bradley, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, and Grace Kirby portray the Cenobites, the beings who take Frank from this earthly plain to begin with. Bradley has built a career as "Pinhead," a bald monstrosity with nails driven into his skull (although he is credited as "Lead Cenobite" in this first film in the series). Barker does not use the Cenobites much, so they are made more effective and creepy when they appear onscreen. The script almost becomes film-noirish as Julia kills to stay with Frank, and the horror elements only add to the suspense.

As this came out in the late 1980's, the special effects are very hot and cold. The makeup and gore effects work very well, as do simple things like light and smoke playing against slats in a broken wall. The Cenobites' costuming also adds to the creepy factor, they look like S&M freaks from the bowels of Hell. There is one scorpion-like creature that chases Kirsty that did have me laughing (I thought I saw a crew member behind it, pushing it along), and some of the neon-looking animation techniques are just goofy. The ending is okay, the film makers obviously not knowing Pinhead and the gang would be torturing straight-to-video fans for a few more years.

"Hellraiser" is a watermark in the history of the horror film. It's not the scariest film ever made, or the goriest, but it is certainly one to remember. (* * * *) out of five stars.