An unfaithful wife encounters the zombie of her dead lover; demons are pursuing him after he escaped their sadomasochistic underworld. (IMDB synopsis)
Oh ho ho HO, yes! Time for another Horror Icon review, and this time I look at one of my favourite horror characters, the Lead Cenobite, AKA Pinhead. Many years ago, I watched Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments, which showcased the most frightening moments in film, TV and even music. Watching the three-hour-long special has become one of my annual Hallowe’en traditions, but on the first viewing, one listed item intrigued me above all others. To my young eyes, Hellraiser was the most gorily gruesome thing I’d ever seen… and I wanted to see it. So here are my thoughts on the first film in the franchise (and next Monday I’ll go back to doing Reader Requests, I promise).
In a land far away, a Mr. Cotton and a wizened old merchant, two men with equally filthy fingernails, are negotiating the sale of a mysterious puzzle box. Back in the USA, Frank Cotton goes up to his attic to solve it and holy pyjamas, that man is sweaty. I know heat rises and everything, but I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t even see any insulation. Anyway, the moment he solves it, an array of fishing hooks appear out of nowhere and dig into his
latex flesh. He screams rather unconvincingly.
Hmmm, now what does this remind me of…?
After this, we catch a glimpse of the cenobites and the carnage they’ve wrought – blood and body parts everywhere, swaying hooks on chains, and some kind of rotating sunglasses display stand with bones and viscera instead of sunglasses. (I’m sorry, that’s the only way I can describe it.) The cenobites piece Frank’s face back together on the wooden floor and then vanish along with the puzzle box.
Some time later, we see a family moving into the missing Frank’s former abode. There’s Larry Cotton, the stolid brother of Frank; Julia, his second wife; and Kirsty, Larry’s daughter. Through flashbacks, Julia is revealed to have had a torrid sexual affair with Frank and is still obsessed with him. The scenes in which the two partake in shenanigans were heavily censored, so we don’t get to see Frank hit Julia’s behind with a paddle. No, he just pulls out a switchblade and ruins a perfectly good nightgown. Fun for the whole family!
In the next scene, Larry cuts his hand on a nail and comes to Julia for help, dripping red corn syrup all over the floor, and the floor… sucks it all up. Well, all right. Then the gooey, sticky remains of Frank bubble up from the floorboards in glorious stop-motion. Awesome.
Yes, Brother Frank has returned to life, if you can call it that. The next time Julia enters the spare room, he appears and begs her to bring him more blood, which he needs to become whole again. And so it begins!
There are two things about this film that hit me very hard in the face on every viewing. The first thing is the somewhat, er, ligneous performances of the main cast. It’s hard to describe, as they’re wooden in different ways. Claire Higgins as Julia has probably the best acting chops out of everyone and has the most interesting part to play. She merely tolerates her tedious husband, ignores her stepdaughter, and when it comes to Frank, well… there’s a reason one of the suggested titles for the film was What A Woman Will Do For A Good F**k. The fiery, passionate and possibly dangerous Frank is the only person who can melt through Mrs. Frosty-Knicker’s icy exterior, and so when he asks her to murder people on his behalf, she does it with barely a moment’s hesitation. In time, she becomes steadily better at killing and even more cold-blooded.
The other actors struggle to bring life to their respective parts. Larry and Kirsty have good chemistry with each other, but otherwise, Larry’s lines feel flat. Kirsty is OK, but nothing spectacular. Frank’s performance is the most unusual, as every one of his spoken lines sounds like it’s been dubbed in. Yes, even before Frank becomes a zombie and has to be played by a different actor in a rubber suit. It’s very strange indeed. Sure, Frank has a strong and commanding voice, but it seems to jump uncontrollably out of his face! He should probably get that looked at!
The SECOND thing about Hellraiser that consistently strikes me is the sheer level of butchery. The first time I watched Frank’s remains bursting out of the floorboards, I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed, because everything is so glutinous and bloody and gory. The poor guy! You have to wonder just what the cenobites did to reduce him to such a sad state.
And, ohhhh yes. The cenobites.
There’s something about these beings that’s so portentous, and THAT makes them all the scarier, in my opinion. The first time we see them, they’re kept in shadow, their faces concealed. The second time, they’re shown in flashback and the camera lingers a little longer on their horrific countenances. And then finally, when Kirsty gets hold of the Lament Configuration and solves it for herself, they appear in a flash of blinding light, corrupting the room around them and scaring the pants off Kirsty. As part of my research, I read the source text by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart, and the descriptions of the cenobites are truly delicious, speaking of their corrugated flesh and intricate scarification. The cenobites, despite their shocking appearance and tendency towards ripping people in every compass direction with rusty hooks, are not supposed to be completely evil. Like many of Barker’s monsters (e.g. Candyman), they can be viewed in a sympathetic light. After all, they only appear when summoned and genuinely believe they’re providing a good experience for the summoner, blurring the line between pain and pleasure.
I like the fact that the cenobites are used sparingly in this film. Each one of them is terrifying to look at, but of course Pinhead has the greatest presence and the most amazing voice. I believe the four hours a day in the makeup chair put actor Doug Bradley into a kind of trance which serves his performance very well.
Although the majority of the film focuses on Frank and Julia’s misdeeds, it’s poor Kirsty that gets saddled with the cenobites and has to lead them back to Frank, so that they can take him instead of her. And so they do. “Jesus wept” indeed. This is the scene which was featured in the 100 Greatest Scary Moments, and it’s what got me interested in the film in the first place. Back then, my vision of Hellraiser was closer to the plot of Hellraiser 2 – a nightmarish quest to escape the realm of the cenobites – and I was disappointed to have to put up with an hour of Julia getting her evil smirk on. Oh well.
This movie is juuuuust gruesome enough to keep the viewer hooked on the promises the DVD cover makes. The acting could be better, but for sheer atmosphere, intensity of tone and goddamn creepy imagery, Hellraiser is definitely worth the watch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to rant and rave about YouTube taking down its 100 Greatest Scary Moments video.
6 2/3 jam sandwiches.