1987s Hellraiser was a movie that I actually sought out, intending to watch it as the final film of my annual Halloween movie night. I have had very little exposure to this prolific horror film series, save via the occasional pop-culture reference to the franchise's poster boy, Pinhead. That marked up, porcupine looking dude always has a tendency to show up whenever icons of horror are gathering, despite the fact that I always thought he was a tad silly looking. I mean c'mon, he looks like that Guinness world record guy who clipped the most clothespins to his face. And I bet THAT hurt more than poking yourself with that many pins. The edgelord demons of this movie aside, I was led to understand that this movie actually had something going for it, and in my urge to continue exploring the initial entries in long-running horror movie franchises, I decided to take up Hellraiser.
This movie, based on the Clive Barker novella The Hell Bound Heart opens with a mysterious man selling a collector's edition rubik's cube to a traveler who looks in desperate need of a manicure. At the very least he could take a cuticle scraper under those nails. He returns home with his strange and mystical item, and his cursed frogurt with choice of topping. I gotta say, this guy goes full-bore with his mysterious cursed object rituals, even so far as lighting a little cube shaped outline of candles while playing with his cube. He dicks around with the puzzle box until something clicks and things get crazy, including a pair of the sketchiest looking shwarma cookers ever coming out of the darkness, the appearance of everybody's favourite edgelord demons and our puzzle enthusiast getting attacked by extreme body mods. Something or other happens and we can assume that he gets ripped apart, leaving a few chunks of face behind that the Pinhead monster rearranges and then disappears with, leaving the attic empty.
Flash forward a year or so and some new couple is moving into the old place, pacing around and cleaning out all the old furniture, moldy food and eerie prevalence of Jesus statues. Why the hell does this guy have so much Christian imagery lying around when he's super into solving hellboxes upstairs? Did he think his plastic Jesus would protect him whether it rains or freezes, or when torture fetish demons spew forth to drag him to bondage hell? It clearly didn't work out.
This couple consists of Larry and Julia, who have seized the property of Larry's brother, Frank, after his mysterious disappearance. They argue about how creepy and musty this old place, just as Julia finds some old photos of Frank in sexual congress with a variety of ladies. Gosh, in some he's even wearing MASKS while he plows his partner. I understand that this is supposed to show that Frank is some sort of experimental sexual deviant, but seriously, at best he's role playing with a kabuki mask while roping some poor shmuck into snapping photos of these relatively vanilla nooky sessions. Seriously, the average furry gets more adventurous than this. Where is the closet full of bondage gear? Where's the mounted sex swing and wide array sex toys? Where are all the collars for his “secret dogs”? Julie actually pocketed the photos, clearly intrigued as the daughter of the family, Kristy comes in.
As she says hello to her father and cordially greets her stepmother, the movers stagger in through the front door with a hefty mattress, eyeballing them both up and commenting on the goods. This is still the 80s, so they aren't fired on the spot for this, and Larry helps the guys shift this hefty thing upstairs. Meanwhile Julia is looking over the pictures of Frank, tearing the other lady out of each one. It seems that back when she first met Larry, she also was intrigued by Frank's rapeyness. This flashback goes into full on wet dream territory as she remembers the day after her own wedding when a sexy, rain-soaked Frank showed up at her door and basically leered her into adultery on the spot. Back in the present, Larry cuts himself on a nail while heading up the stairs and bleeds heavily, staggering into a side room upstairs and spilling his blood all over the floor. Get it? He cut himself on a nail while Julia remembers getting NAILED? Eh? Clever?
Larry heads to the hospital with his family while the blood he spilled seeps into the floor boards and hits a bit of viscous tissue that seems to have been left behind after Frank's little foray into the unknown. With the house still abandoned, the bloodied tissue begins to coalesce and ooze out from between the floorboards, and a human body begins to reconstitute itself. I can't lie, this is probably the best scene in the entire movie. This pre-Terminator 2 scene of a human body pulling itself together from a pile of primordial goo, going from a loosely defined skeleton covered in flailing tubes to growing back a brain and eventually connective tissue is achieved almost entirely with animatronics, reversed footage and stop motion, backed up by the thunderously epic score of the film composed by Christopher Young. The effects are excellent, the scene is skin crawling and the music and lighting gives the whole thing a sweeping, gothic feel that just had me going :D the entire time. The scene is punctuated by the wretched, half-formed man letting out an agonized scream as his lungs form within his chest. No snarky commentary, this is just awesome.
That night, the family is entertaining guests at a dinner party when Julia decides to just get up and leave, throwing down a vague insult and clearly still pining for Frank. Well today's your lucky day lady! She heads up to the vacant attic and runs into gooboy as he sort of flails at her. He's still just bones and connective tissue at this point, though he has enough of a face to beg for her help. Somehow, he manages to convince her that he actually IS Frank and tells her that he needs blood. He figures if a splash of his brother's blood got him this far (which is quite impressive) then more will eventually get him mobile and fully formed. She flees in terror as Frank just sort of continues to flail there, all sad and goopey.
While all this gross crap is going on, Kristie is walking back to her place with her boyfriend, discussing those things that young couples in the 80's discuss while some creepy Alan Moore peeps in on them from the alleyway. Julia and Kristy both have very different dreams that night, with Kristy envisioning a feather coated table that holds her father's corpse, and Julia having a more intimate nighttime encounter with Frank's memory, back when he had skin. She wakes up all flustered and goes back to the KY-Jelly coated skeleton in the corner, promising to help him because she still wants to jump his bones, even though that's all he's got left at this point. Hey-ya! Apparently Julia is a total drama queen and danger-fetishist, or Frank is so good in bed that Julia is ready and willing to betray her husband and gather an indeterminate amount of human blood for him. No kidding, when Clive Barker found that he could not keep the original title of his novella, The Hellbound Heart for the movie, he started shopping around for an alternative and one of the suggestions from a female production member was What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck. Meanwhile downstairs, Kristy has called her father at 2 in the morning because of her scary dream, even though I'm pretty sure this is exactly what her parents had her move out to keep from happening.
By the next day, Julia has gone full Black Widow mode, seducing men with her shoulder pads and luring them back to the house. Man, you don't need to automatically resort to murder if you just need blood. All it took was a little splash to get him this far, how much could he possibly need? I, on my own, could probably secure a bag or two of blood from a hospital or something if I really had to. And there's nothing stopping me from donating a little of my own blood to the cause. Seriously, stretch all this over a week or two and with a little bit of patience, you'll be strolling around fully formed in no time. But no, she decides to take the psycho route and seduces this schlub up to the attic, seemingly able to talk him into having sex on the dry, splintery floor. One gross disrobing scene later, she clubs him over the head with a hammer a few times and leaves his body for this gross, slippery vampire to feed on. Jeez, Frank doesn't even help her tidy up after, even after growing back muscles from this last feast. He looks a little better now, and by “better” I mean “Like a Bodyworlds exhibit has climbed off of it's dais and is putting the movies on one of the Heathers”. Frank explains that he needs to get his body back and start running before the demons who imprisoned him in Sex Hell, the Cenobites, realize that he has escaped.
Back in the much less interesting plot of Kristy's day to day, her job at the pet shop is interrupted by the reappearance of Alan Moore, who eats a handful of crickets and “vanishes” after Kristy takes her eyes off of him for a solid 30 seconds to talk to her boyfriend. That dealt with, he cut back to Julia clubbing another guy and Frank draining him dry. Also, the momentum of this restoration is really starting to slow down. The first splash of blood gave him physical form and enough structure to crawl around, but two whole dudes later, and he still looks like he's missing a few chunks. He even comments that his nerves are finally growing back. Frank rewards this latest bout of murder with more information, stating that so long as he has the puzzle box (Which he, by the way, has for some reason. Didn't Pinhead grab that when they were cleaning up after him?) then he is assured that the demons will not be able to cross over and reclaim him. He's still in need of flesh, and probably some new skin, but Julia doesn't feel like offering up Larry just yet. Even when he comes back that night with his dander up and starts to make out with his wife while Frank sneaks around upstairs. Man, Larry seems awfully oblivious to all of this stuff that's going on in his house, including the fact that there is even a third man living UPSTAIRS in a small room that branches directly off from the main hall. The fact that said man is a dripping corpse and looking to nail his wife is just icing on this cake. They get ready to bone, but then Frank appears out of the closet and mutilates a rat right in front of Julia with a switchblade that I guess he conjured out of the ether, which I imagine is enough to put her right out of the moan. Larry mistakes her wife pleading for his life for protests and whines for a bit before deciding to fall asleep downstairs while watching wrestling. The next day he actually calls up his daughter to ask her to check in on his wife and see why she isn't horny. Dang dude. As Julia brings in yet another guy for Frank to suck on, Kristy sees her escorting him inside and naturally assumes adultery. Well, she's HALF right. She storms in to confront them, only to run across a freshly hammered corpse and a skinless man in a suit with the best line in the whole movie:
Shockingly enough, this doesn't calm her down. Frank quickly gets handsy, but Kristy remembers that he is still a mass of exposed muscles and nerves and thus could be fucked up with a good, hard poke. And poke him she does, grabbing the puzzle cube from his hands. She manages to escape by baiting him with it and flees, finally collapsing from trauma on the sidewalk.
Kristy awakens in the hospital, interrogated by some spooky doctor who grill her and then leaves. Left alone, Kristy pulls out the box and seemingly like everyone else, can't help but messing with it for the next hour or so. Honestly, I know where she's coming from. That thing is so damn cool looking and sleek that I probably wouldn't be able to resist playing around with it until I managed to summon the hordes of deviant hell either.
She does end up opening it, which instead of bringing on the chains, spikes and spiky chains, merely opens up a portal into the upside-down that she briefly explores before realizing that this was a terrible idea and getting chased out by another cool-looking monstrosity. Then the rest of the Cenobites show up. Their terms are very simple: She opened the box, they came for her. They explain that they are explorers in a way, but instead of land, they chart the extent of experience and sensation, riding the barrier between agony and ecstasy until it no longer exists. And I gotta say, only Pinhead and the Cat Lady actually talk during all of this (by way of one having his mouth shut and the other not having lips) but man, do these guys know how to hold a scene. Pretty much every line they say is the finest grade of ham, and quotable as hell. Kristy pleads that she had no idea of the implications involved, but Pinhead merely remarks that it's not really his problem: You are in for an eternity of sensation obliterating torture until you learn to love it, just as Frank was. She tries to bargain, saying that Frank escaped their clutches and offering his soul for hers. They say that they'll consider it, leaving her in one piece, with one final warning: Do not attempt to cheat them, or they will “TEEAAARRR YOUR SOOUL APPAAAAAARRRRRT”
Back at home, Julie has seemingly gotten over her whole “Don't wanna murder my husband” thing and innocently invites a still utterly oblivious Larry upstairs. Honestly, if you are that blind to the goings on of your own damn house, then this is your fault for god's sake. Frank descends the steps wearing Larry's skin a few minutes later, and I have to wonder the true extent of this guys parasitic powers. How does he drink people? What, did he perfectly skin Larry with that switchblade of his and then wriggle inside? Is this The Mummy rules where absorbing other people's vitae regenerates his own body, or is this Jeepers Creepers rules where he replaces his own body parts with other peoples? Anyway, Julia finally gets that sweet sweet undead sex that she so craves until Kristy barges in, trying to warn them both of what's going on. “Larry” assures her that everything is fine and that he killed Frank. Poor fool was like a mad dog after all, and had to be put out of his misery. Kristy is a little slow on the uptake here, even pretty solidly ignoring the fact that Frank is obviously wearing her father's scalp like a wig. Kristy inspects the skinned corpse of what she does not know is her father while the murder couple downstairs wonders what to do with her. The Cenobites show up, demanding to know who did this. Kristy doesn't understand, still not clued in until Frank shows up, trying to comfort her/come on to her. Kristy quickly figures it out, clawing his loose skin off and bolting. Julia holds her, but merely succeeds in getting stabbed herself. Frank merely shrugs and stalks after Kristy as she flees upstairs, hiding briefly where she stumbles across the distorted body of one of Frank's victims. What, they were just getting stowed away in the spare room? The other spare room that's across the hall from the bleeding man corpse? Jesus Larry, how did all of this skip your notice? I mean I know you're dead, but unless a bottle rocket went off in your nose as a kid, you'd probably be able to smell SOMEthing.
Kristy escapes her husband's notice long enough to creep outside and just sort of...stand there until Frank grabs her and throws her back into the murder room. She finally calls him a murder and he replies “I'm just your old uncle Frank”.
As soon as the confession leaves his lips, the Cenobites show up again, explaining that they had to hear it from him. He can barely protest before the Criss Angel stunt attacks him again, pulling him every which way until he is completely immobilized by hooks and his flesh stretched to the point of breaking. At the very zenith of agony, he turns to Kristy and his screams terminate into a smirk. He licks his teeath at her in a final lewd gesture and speaks the shortest sentence of The Bible: “Jesus Wept”
And then he is torn apart. It's a pretty powerful scene helped by the phenomenal creature effects and Clive Barker's characterization of Frank. Of COURSE the last thing he did before spending an eternity in torture hell was make a pass at his own niece.
Kristy of course tries to run, but the Cenobites have deiced that they might as well take her along for the ride while they're here. They chase her around the house for a bit until she finds the Puzzle box clutched in the hands of a dissected Julia. In the original book, the Cenobites actually just left Kristy alone after claiming Frank and that was that, but this is a movie and we need or Big Dumb Ending. Kristy fiddles around with the puzzle box, figuring that if solving it summons the demons, then solving and unsolving rapidly in succession will banish them. It's actually kind of a clever idea, with the heroine actually hacking an infernal artifact in order to survive. And she does, kinkshaming the BDSM monsters one by one into oblivion with the power of puzzles.
Her boyfriends bursts in in the last ten minutes to see if he can help, but really only just gets almost eaten by the Uncle Fester looking one before the building falls on him. Kristy has a brief slapfight with the Hallway Monster and then she and Nameless Boyfriend flee, the house collapsing behind them and presumably getting sucked into hell. As they stand amongst the flaming wreckage, Kristy pulls the box out of her pocket and tosses it into the flames. But then Alan Moore shows up! And he grabs the box, then turns into a bone demon and flies away! What? Why did he keep following Kristy even when she didn't have the box? And what was with those prophetic dreams that she kept having? Okay! The whole scene shrinks away into one side of the box as if this is the ending to another episode of Hellraiser:The Series or something, and the movie ends the same way it began: Some mysterious shopkeeper offering the puzzle box to a curious customer while asking him the simple question: What's your pleasure?
I actually ended up quite liking this movie. While what I've seen of the other films in this series do not speak volumes about their quality, Hellraiser ended up being a dark, occasionally unsettling and thoroughly enjoyable exploration into limits of human desire. Clive Barker acted as the writer and director for this adaptation, so it is interesting to see what a writer will do with his own work on screen. Clive Barker certainly proves to be a competent writer as well as director, and I am left interested in what other work he has done. The film asks two very simple question: What are you into? And how far are you willing to go to get it? We see people like the movers ogling people up on their work hours, we meet Julia, who is willing to resort to murder in order to be with the one man who ever made her feel sexually fulfilled, and of course Frank, who considers himself above the rewards of mere human sexual fulfillment, but is clearly unprepared for the sheer extremity of pure sensation, which leaves him flayed and broken. I quite enjoy that the real villain of the narrative is not the demons, but rather Frank himself, a man who has touched the infernal beyond and has come back a literal shell of himself. His own quest to return to humanity from his experience in hell and the corruption he brings with him is the real driving force, and the demons themselves only show up when they are called. They will eagerly re balance the scales when a need to do so is necessary, and only ever lay claim to those that summoned them. They are more of an underlying tone than a genuine threat, and at the very end, they do not put up nearly as much of a threat as Frank did. It's a neat little film, though the wealth of practical effects probably suckered me in more than it should have. I can give this one a solid recommendation.