Friday, October 17, 2014

Hellraiser

With Hellraiser (1987), the feature film debut of director Clive Barker (who based the movie off his novella The Hellbound Heart), Pinhead, leader of the deformed Cenobites, joined the ranks of Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhies as one of the most memorable horror movie villains to emerge in the decade. In retrospect, it's kind of ironic because a) he's only in a handful of scenes, and b) he's not really the villain.

Yes, Pinhead (played by the impressive Doug Bradley) does some awful things to people in this movie (torture, mutilation, and other party favorites at my family reunions), but he and his coterie are more dispassionate observers than active participants, impartial judges who enforce the rules, amoral scientists who explore the boundaries of flesh and sensation. And unlike Freddy, who enjoys killing, and Jason, a silent brute, Pinhead and his buddies can be reasoned with. If you know what they want, you can strike a bargain with them, but it does come with a price.

The real villains of the piece are not the demonic, graphically-distorted Cenobites but a pair of twisted lovers: Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman in human form, Oliver Smith in non-human form) and Julia (Clare Higgins), who is married to Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson). When he solves the riddle of the mysterious Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that promises untold sensations for its users, Frank is literally torn to pieces by the hooks and chains of the Cenobites. They take what's left of him to Hell.

Meanwhile, Larry and Julia move into an old family house, and after Larry bleeds on a bedroom floor, Julia finds the sentient, skeletal remains of her lover. Frank needs more blood and flesh to regain his human form, and it must be done before Cenobites find him, so Julia lures men to the room where she murders them. But when Larry's daughter from another marriage, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), acquires the Lament Configuration, all Hell breaks loose.

Hellraiser centers on a perverse love triangle. While many horror films, especially those in the 80s, are fundamentally survival stories - characters trapped with a killer or killers who pick them off one at a time - Barker's film, while luridly gory and violent, functions as a character-based drama, and in some ways, it could be categorized as a tragedy, since it is the flaws of these characters, especially their arrogance and (blood)lust, that lead to their downfall. Frank is the mortal man who thinks he's experienced everything human pleasure has to offer, and in his arrogance and boredom, he summons up a force beyond his comprehension. Julia commits adultery (a flashback shows she and Frank passionately made love on her wedding dress), and because her husband can't satisfy her, she commits murder to resurrect the man who can do it for her. Then there's Larry, a relative innocent but something of a pushover, so trusting, so oblivious, so doomed.

The Cenobites are on the periphery of this drama. They don't care who's screwing who or who gets off on what; they are so detached from human experience, pleasure and pain are all the same to them. They merely explore the limits of the flesh of the people they take, the fools who open the Lament Configuration. The Cenobites arrive when summoned by the box, and when they do, they take whoever opened it, whether it's the vile Frank or the naive Kirsty, who has no idea of the Lament Configuration's true nature.

"The box. You opened it. We came," Pinhead bellows. When Kirsty, crying, begs not to be taken, he chides her. "Oh, no tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering." This is the point when Kirsty, remembering all she has seen, offers the Cenobites Frank in her place. Pinhead sounds peeved to learn anyone has escape him; he tells Kirsty maybe they'll spare her in return for Frank, but if she tries to cheat them, they'll tear her soul apart.

Barker, who had already established himself as a writer by this point, demonstrates raw talent behind the camera, packing the film with graphic, unforgettable imagery: the hooks that shoot of the air and sink into tender flesh, the telltale signs (and sound cues) of creeping shadows that announce the arrival of the Cenobites, the Cenobites themselves. Everyone knows Pinhead, with his pale head crisscrossed by all the nails embedded in his skull, but there's also Butterball, a rotund creature with sagging folds and stitched-up eyes, and Chatterer, whose lips are pulled back by wires so his teeth are always clapping together. Barker also packs in his expected lurid sexual themes and ideas. In one kinky if bloody moment, Julia sucks on Frank's finger, even though it lacks skin.

The underfed Frank creature looks creepy, even though efforts to make it look skeletal only add to the actor's bulk. There's also a giant snake-like creature that chases Kirsty at one point, but its effect is undone because we can see some of the crew pushing it.

Christopher Young contributes a nice, atmospheric soundtrack (which White Zombie sampled in one of its songs). Barker only directed two features after this (plus a music video for Motorhead), and that's a shame because he demonstrates a willingness to break taboos and push boundaries. A lot of his work has been adapted, some very well (Candyman) and some poorly (Rawhead Rex). Hellraiser is one of the best.

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