Barker’s Back: Reliving Hellraiser (1987)

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Clive Barker has announced that he will be releasing a new Hellraiser Anthology comic series. According to Barker the book will feature 11 short stories each adding to the mythos of Hellraiser. With this in mind it felt like it was time to revisit and recap the iconic movie series. Spanning 30 years and encompassing books, comics and a diverse and problematic movie series Hellraiser is a horror like no other.

Hellraiser – 1987

Beware – Spoilers and Sarcasm Below

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Based on the novella “The Hellbound Heart”  by Clive Barker this is where it all began. The ongoing and divisive series now tallies eight sequels. Released in 1987, Hellraiser tells the tale of Frank and Julia’s love affair. Which happens to involve skinning people alive, leather clad demons and some of the best 80’s hair ever caught on film.

“What’s your pleasure, sir?”

The movie opens in a shady chinese shop and the audience is introduced to the main antagonist Frank (Sean Chapman). After a short amount of dialogue he’s passed a box and promised delights beyond imagining. Cut to Frank, surrounded by candles and playing with his box. He does something right as the puzzle begins to move on its own before chains come flying out of the darkness, attach themselves to Frank and drag him to hell.

“It’s Better Than Brooklyn” 

Cut back to “America” (the movie was shot in London, which is apparent upon watching, but the studio New World felt that it would be more marketable if it was set in America. They just avoid mentioning which state.) We are introduced to Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his constantly unimpressed looking wife Julia (Clare Higgins). They walk around a dusty home while Larry talks about his disgusting brother Frank. Who used to live here but is currently missing.  It’s established quite quickly that Larry doesn’t like Frank. Frank Likes money and sex. Julia likes Frank. There’s also mention of Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). Kirsty doesn’t like Julia. Julia seems to not be overly concerned about Kirsty.  

“Come To Daddy”

Upon moving into the house the audience is simultaneously treated to the worst home delivery team and a very strange sex flashback. It’s established that Julia and Frank did the nasty in the past. Larry cut’s his hand on the most obvious nail in the world and bleeds all over Julia’s new attic floor. She’s not impressed. This blood however brings Frank back from where-ever he’s been hiding.

“Come here, damn you, I want to touch you.”

Enlisting Julia’s help Frank begins the process of building himself back up from gore covered crawling thing to gore covered standing thing. This process involves Julia luring men to her attic (not a euphemism) where she proceeds to kill them and feed them to Frank. Each kill makes him stronger and provides him with more strength.

“I’m a bit worried about her”

Frank begins to grow greedy and concerned about his lack of skin. Julia seems to have second doubts about all the murder she’s been committing. While Larry (who is still oblivious to the fact that his skinless brother is living, rent free, in the attic) confides in Kirsty that he’s concerned about Julia’s behavior. In an effort to get to like her stepmother, she offers to go round and see if there’s anything she can help with.

“It’s Just A Box”

However upon arriving at Casa Del Murder, she witness’s Julia luring a strange man into the house. She instantly decides that her stepmother is having an affair and goes in to catch her in the act. Working her way upstairs to the attic, she is instead confronted by a bloated half eaten corpse.  Julia looks shocked and appalled at what is going on and Uncle Frank is just happy to have his family back. Kirsty delivers a master class in screaming and hysteria before grabbing a strange box and fleeing the house.

“You Opened It. We Came”

At what can only be described as the rudest hospital in all of America/England, Kirsty wakes to find herself weak and disoriented but still in possession of the box. As curiosity gets the better of her she works to figure out the puzzle. When she succeeds, a passage opens in the hospital wall. Naturally the plucky heroine goes down the dark, creep corridor and is confronted by a monstrosity that chases her back to her hospital room. The lighting changes, smoke billows from the walls and the audience is finally introduced to the cenobites. This is the first full appearance of Priest, Priestess, Chatterbox and Butterball.

“Demons To Some. Angels To Others”

After explaining that she had made a mistake and that she doesn’t want to go to hell Kirsty strikes a deal with the demons. She will return Uncle Frank to them in exchange for her soul and safety. Reluctantly they agree after threatening Kirsty’s soul if she fails to deliver. Wasting no time she returns home to find her father and Julia. Hysterical that her step-mother has been in cahoots with her skinless uncle Frank, Kirsty begs her father to leave the house. He calmly informs her that he knows Julia’s been murdering people in the attic and feeding Frank. He seems strangely calm about the situation and has dealt with the problem by killing the monster in the attic. Demanding to see for herself, Kirsty goes upstairs to find a steaming, skinless body lying on the floor.

“We Had To Hear It From Your Own Lips”

The cenobites appear and demand the man who committed this atrocity. Kirsty screams more and tries to explain that her father was only doing what he thought was the right thing before slowing coming to realize that man wearing her fathers skin isn’t in fact her father. Despite his repeatedly telling her to “Come to daddy.”

“Jesus Wept”

A fight breaks out in the small house, Kirsty scratched the skin off Franks face. He retaliate’s and stabs Julia then drains her life force. Kirsty leads him to the attic of doom where the cenobites await. After confessing to his sin’s Frank is attacked by hooked chains, curses and is promptly pulled to pieces. Shocking nobody the cenobites turn their attention to Kirsty and decide that she should join them in hell.

“We’ll Tear Your Soul Apart!” 

Screaming she manages to work her way through the house to find Julia’s corpse chained the bed holding the puzzle box. After quickly figuring out how to use the mystical device Kirsty proceeds to zap the four horrors back to where they came from.  With her boyfriend’s sudden appearance the two flee the house to safety.

The End?

Having had enough of the box and the trauma its brought with it, Kirsty throw it into a burning pyre. Out of nowhere a homeless man appears. He takes the box from the flames, turns into a winged monster and flies off with it. Kirsty looks shaken. Her boyfriend looks confused. We return to the same chinese vendor from the opening of the movie as he manages to sell the box to a new unsuspecting victim.

Overall Verdict

Although it was made in the late 80’s the original has managed to stand the test of time. While special effects have moved on, there is something classic about the gore present in the movie. The make up effects on the cenobites and skinless Frank are still as effective an uncomfortable  now as they were at the time. This movie is responsible for the birth of one of most icon villains of all time – Pinhead. The visuals and tone of the movie are claustrophobic and tense. A theme common for the Hellraiser Series. The acting comes across a touch wooden and outdated but the audience can still connect with the characters.

Barkers directorial debut manages to convey horror and builds tension well through the movie. The characters are interesting and it’s always refreshing to have a strong female hero. Kirsty manages to survive the four cenobite assault, her skinless uncle and a wicked step mother with a penchant for attacking strange men with a hammer. She will go on to feature heavily in comics whilst being absent from a number of sequels.

With this being the first movie in the series and important for setting the tone and introducing the  characters Hellraiser is awarded 5 out 5 Pinheads.

Important Mythos to the Series

The Puzzle Box – this is a constant feature through every aspect of the Hellrasier franchise. It appears to be the only way to summon/banish the cenobites.

The Cenobites – although they take multiple forms, The Priest (he’s not yet named Pinhead) and Priestess are key characters to the universe. Other cenobites join their ranks through the multitude of sequels, but never manage to take the top spot.

Hell – Kirsty’s brief journey down the corridor of doom is a brief glimpse at a world outside our own. Something that is explored in later movies.

Kirsty Cotton – a key figure in the legacy of Hellraiser. She will go on to appear in future films and be a large figure in the Boom Comics Series.

Jamesey Lefebure
A Scotsman living in Liverpool who spends far too much time with his head in a horror book. Stephen Kings 2nd biggest fan and Wonder Woman enthusiast, I'm always happy to talk horror in any format, comics or cheesy TV.