What I'm trying to say is that "Hellraiser" is a stupid title that makes no sense. There. I'm done with that. Now on to the actual film.
"Hellraiser" was the feature directorial debut of Clive Barker, who hasn't done nearly as much as you'd think in the 30 plus years he's been around show business, but is still a pretty well known name. Why he's only directed two other movies, I'm not sure, as he's certainly not untalented at it. And while I wouldn't necessarily call "Hellraiser" a great film, it's easy to imagine it being the debut of someone who went on to do great things. Kind of like David Fincher and "Alien 3." Although I do like "Alien 3" more than "Hellraiser," to be sure.
That's not a slam on "Hellraiser," by the way. I'm just a hopeless "Alien" fanboy.
"Hellraiser" is about a very nasty man, Frank (Sean Chapman), who opens a puzzle box he bought from an Asian merchant, which ends up releasing demons from Hell. These demons imprison him in their sadomasochistic dimension, after ripping him to pieces and all that good stuff you'd imagine to happen in Hell. How he found out about the box in the first place and why the crap he opened it is left a little vague, but whatever. The important thing is that evidently, part of him is still "alive" in the floorboards of the house it happened in. Again, that's not explained, but whatever.
A little while later his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Larry's wife Julia (Claire Higgins) happen move into the house Frank died in. This isn't nearly as random as it sounds however, as it belonged to their parents, and Frank had been squatting. Larry has no idea what happened to Frank, though, as he hasn't talked to him for a long time. He just assumes Frank is in jail somewhere.
During the moving process, Larry manages to slice his hand open on a nail to comically horrific effect. Some of his blood manages to drop exactly on the spot where the remnants of Frank's body are laying under the floorboards, which sucks the blood up like a sponge, bringing Frank back to life. Kind of.
He's a work in progress.
When he is discovered up in the attic by Julia, Frank informs her that he needs more blood to become whole again and to escape the demons that had imprisoned him, as they are unaware of his resurrection, but probably won't be for long. Since she has feelings for him, as she'd already had an affair with him once, Julia agrees to help him. She lures poor saps to the house to be murdered so Frank can feast upon them. And it's at that point we notice that she's the only person in this film as despicable as Frank.
Things predictably spin out of control as more and more people get murdered up in the attic, while Larry is dumb enough to never notice that his wife is an evil psychopath. Although in his defense, she always seemed a little cracked, so after she becomes a murderer, little had changed in her outward appearance or mannorisms. But in any case, it's clear that eventually, Larry is probably going to end up on the wrong side of a hammer.
Here is Claire Higgins auditioning for Stanley Kubrick.
Eventually becoming our main character after the film is about halfway over is Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter from a previous marriage. She is the one to finally uncover everything that's going on, although by the time she does it's clearly too late to do much of anything about it, and all of a sudden she becomes the "last girl in a slasher movie" out of nowhere, running from the bad guys in an effort to escape from a situation she didn't even know she was in.
It should be obvious at this point that "Hellraiser" is a bit unique in that way. While the narrative clearly focuses on Julia for a good majority, the last act suddenly switches to the viewpoint of Kirsty while Julia is rather quickly thrown on the back-burner as she becomes not important at all. It works in the context of the story, but it is strange for a person who seemed like a minor character for most of the film to suddenly be front and center.
But Ashley Laurence is HOT. So please. Front and center away.
I like the idea that the main protagonist for the majority of the movie is someone who is a villain. Julia is despicable, and Claire Higgins plays her with fantastic cold evilness, but we're forced to follow in her footsteps, almost like a ride we're strapped into which takes us through a tunnel of horrors. We don't want it to keep going deeper into the darkness, the same way we don't want Julia and Frank to kill all these poor saps, but "Hellraiser" is making us watch in protest the same way the ride keeps shooting us down that tunnel. And then we finally get some goodness in the character of Kirsty, but even she has to dive into that evil headfirst in order to get out. It really makes for an unnerving experience.
Most will know and remember "Hellraiser" for Pinhead and his Cenobites, however. And true, they are the most striking images from the film, but they don't factor in as much as you'd probably think, appearing at the very beginning but then going away until about the last 15 minutes. Pinhead doesn't really do too much for me though, at least as far as iconic movie villains goes. He's intimidating, and he and his Cenobites are indeed disturbing to look at, but I don't know. He just looks bored most of the time. I know Doug Bradley is a beloved horror icon for his portrayal, and the man has to hold some kind of record for playing a character that many times (the count right now being 9 movies), but some more intensity would have been appreciated.
One thing I will give "Hellraiser" credit for is having some good effects for a tiny budget. The gore in this is pretty well done and hard to look at on occasion, which is the whole point. Even if the close-up shots of hooks going into skin look more like one of those fake body parts on the obstacle course on "Double Dare," it's still hooks going into skin. It's just disturbing. The best effects are on Frank as he slowly becomes more and more human, and his initial raising from the dead is as fantastic as it is disgusting.
I may not be as big of a fan of "Hellraiser" as other horror affectionados are, but I can certainly appreciate it. I think the biggest issue with it that it has 8 sequels. And I can't see this series going anywhere but downhill.
Well, if Stephen King says it's good, you know it's quality.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "Hellraiser" is an interesting, somewhat quirky movie that is a bit dated in its effects, but still manages to be eerie, atmospheric, and reasonably intense. It's also notable for having some of the better acting of 80's horror films. Worth a look if you're curious.