I’ll just go ahead and say this up front: I’ve never really liked Hellraiser. It’s not for a lack of trying – I’ve watched it a handful of times over the years, hoping with each viewing that this would be the time everything would click, but the result has always been the same. I figured I’d give it another shot in order to write this review and at least try to be as objective as possible. Millions of Hellraiser fans can’t all be wrong, right?
If you’ve never seen the movie or if it’s been awhile, I’ll get you up to speed. This guy named Frank (Sean Chapman, Underworld, Hellbound: Hellraiser II) buys a puzzle box from a sketchy shopkeeper and takes it home to unlock its secrets. His reward for solving this Rubik’s Cube of the Damned is to be pierced by a couple dozen hooks attached to chains and ripped into tiny pieces courtesy of some creepy sadomasochistic demons called Cinnabons or something. The leader of the Cinnabons (Doug Bradley, Hellbound: Hellraiser II) resets the puzzle box, and all the little bits of Frank along with his soul disappear down into the underworld. Well it’s a good thing the Cinnabons cleaned up because soon after, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins, Hellbound: Hellraiser II) show up at the house (it was Frank’s and Larry’s childhood home) and decide they’re going to move in even though Julia doesn’t seem all that excited about the idea because the place is kind of a shit-hole. They soon discover that Frank had recently been staying at the house and Julia starts acting weird about it (although she acts weird about pretty much everything) and we see, via flashback, that Frank and Julia had a sweaty, thrusty affair just before she married Larry. The next day Larry cuts his hand while moving a mattress and drips blood on the floor bringing Frank back to life (?) but only partially, so he walks around without any skin while Julia helps him kill some horny guys she picked up so he can regenerate completely and the two of them can run off together. In the meantime, Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence, Hellbound: Hellraiser II) discovers that her stepmom and skinless uncle are murderers, runs out of the house with the puzzle box, and eventually opens it, prompting the Cinnabons to show up to take her with them back to the underworld. Kirsty thinks that sounds like a terrible idea, so she’s like, “Hey, remember that Frank guy you ripped apart with hooks? Well he totally escaped from your evil clutches.” So then the Cinnabons are all like, “Nuh-uh, nobody escapes from us!” So Kirsty is all like, “Yuh-huh, because I saw him at my dad’s house and if you let me go, I’ll show you and you can take him instead of me.” So then Kirsty spends the rest of the movie trying to get rid of Frank and the Cinnabons so she can get back to her life with her boyfriend (Robert Hines) who, my research has shown, is the love child of Johnny Depp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Ralph Macchio.
I think what I dislike about this movie is that it’s so damn somber and dreary from beginning to end. Yes, I realize that horror movies aren’t supposed to be bright and sunny, but with no lighter moments to contrast the darker ones I spend the whole movie searching unsuccessfully for something to like. I want to like Larry so I can root for him, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to, I hate every second Julia is onscreen, the banter between Kirsty and her boyfriend makes me cringe, and I think greasy, leering, flashback Frank is far creepier than drippy, skinless, undead Frank. It’s just not any fun to watch.
But there are some things I do like (the gore F/X are top-notch and the monsters are really cool) and learning more about how the movie was made has given me a greater appreciation for it and for what Clive Barker accomplished. Barker, a horror fiction writer not a filmmaker, had already written the story of Hellraiser and wanted to oversee its transformation into cinematic form rather than to let someone else change his creation. He was given a million-dollar budget (which is pretty small for a film as F/X-intensive as this one) and was so clueless about how to make a movie, he went to his local library to check out books on filmmaking. Considering those circumstances, the result he got is really pretty amazing. Not only did the movie go on to gross around $15 million at the box office, but it launched eight sequels (and a reboot), built a huge following, and, in Pinhead, created one of the most iconic movie characters in horror or in any other genre, for that matter (Ask your non-horror movie friends if they know Hellraiser and you’ll probably get blank stares, but ask them if they know Pinhead and I’ll bet eight or nine out of ten know immediately who you’re talking about).
Overall, Hellraiser may not be my cup of tea but that may have more to do with my personal preferences than with the quality of the movie. The monsters are unique and horrific, the gore level is high, and for the most part the special effects are excellent. It’s not make-you-jump scary but it is continuously unsettling, which I think is what Barker was going for. It’s a must-see for every fan of horror, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s so pervasive, but also because you just might love it.
“Wanna buy a bed?”