‘Hellraiser’ (1987)

Yeah, I saw this one during it’s theatrical release, back in 1987, and above all, I recall leaving the theater in desperate need of some mental hygene given the movie’s uncomfortable explorations of incest, S&M and the consequences of selling your soul.

While the franchise’s demons, the Cenobytes, appear within the film’s first 5 minutes, we only get a glimpse — they are by no means central to the story. Rather, Pinhead and the Cenobytes are simply the vehicles of hubris:The cenobytes both identify and punish those who are willing to overreach. Though the SciFi Channel insists that all genre movies reveal their creatures within the first 15 minutes , that formula — dictated by commercial requirements — is really irrelevant because ‘Hellraiser’ is an epic drama that circulates around Kirsty Cotton ( Ashley Laurence ) and her evil stepmother, Julia ( Clare Higgins ).

Indeed, writer-director Clive Barker waits over an hour to give the audience a good look at the franchise’s signature demons, the Cenobytes, specifically Pinhead. The key antagonists in the first film are really Julia and the posthumous Uncle Frank. Julia wears little makeup, and Frank little skin.

What makes ‘Hellraiser’ an effective and entertaining movie is its emphasis on character and story, rather than makeup.

Uncle Frank rises from the dead at approximately the 20-minute mark, whereupon he marches around for the next 45 minutes fully flayed and in search of skin that can only be acquired vampirically, via the victims that Julia supplies him.

Looking back, ‘Hellraiser’ really was one of the precursors to the big genre franchises that the studios are wont to get ahold of these days — you know, the one-picture spec that turns into the 3 picture franchise-project after box-office receipts cross the $120M mark. Even Mr. Barker is probably surprised that his little million dollar picture spawned seven sequels and warranted a remake.

The remake — due in either 2009 or 2010 , depending on where you look — one hopes that Seraphim Films and the Weinstein Company will work toward a 3 picture story-arc and take into into account the many continuity errors of the first two movies, like the Julia-spawning mattress that somehow survived the Dresden-like house fire at the conclusion of the first movie. Though substantial time is spent on a retcon-recap at the beginning of ‘Hellraiser:Hellbound’ (1988) that one would hope that the Weinsteins would choose a capable director and take the LoTR approach.

But the real value of ‘Hellraiser’ lays not so much in its latex prosthetics and stage-blood, but the slow burn of it’s domestic taboo themes: incest, infidelity and lust. It’s not selling her soul to the Devil that’s Julia’s error, it’s her transgressive relationship to brother-in-law Frank that drives her to participate in a Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka -like serial-killing spree, to restore skin to Uncle Frank’s undead sinews. Certainly, the soap operatic Bonnie and Clyde prepending of Hellraiser that makes the first movie so effective, especially when one considers similar movies — Bernard Rose’s ‘ Candyman ‘ (1992) and Paul W.S. Anderson’s ‘ Event Horizon ‘ (1997) — and their reasons for relative mediocrity.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

*Actually, the Cenobytes do make an appearance at the 3 minute mark, but it’s dark and ambiguous — the only real concluusions viewers can draw is that they wear leather and are comfortable around medical waste.

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