There are certain people whose names are synonymous with horror; along with Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter and George Romero invariably Clive Barker's name will be found as well. That's not at all bad company to keep. Barker, a prolific writer of horror and dark fantasy, made his directorial debut with Hellraiser and, to this day, it's still my favorite work.
The film was released in '87 to mixed reviews. The UK press fairly championed the film (Barker is a native son, after all) and Stephen King remarked "I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker." Lauded film critic Roger Ebert was much less enthusiastic though saying "This is a movie without wit, style or reason, and the true horror is that actors were made to portray, and technicians to realize, its bankruptcy of imagination. Maybe Stephen King was thinking of a different Clive Barker."
Ebert's comment, and it's effete snobbery, is just one of the reasons I've never liked the man. Perhaps he (Ebert) saw a different Hellraiser. The film is one of the most imaginative products of the 80's (in particular) and the history of film (in general); it is an iconic masterpiece in every sense of the phrase and it's safe to say that , while Ebert may have made his living as a film critic, Stephen King is a far more knowledgeable judge of horror than he.
But I digress...
In a decade that overshadows all others for it's output of horror films, Hellraiser rises to the top like sinfully-rich cream and Doug Bradley's Pinhead instantly became one of the most iconic horror characters of all time. It is a study in sin, religion, the thin, blurring line between pleasure and pain and, ultimately, the cost one can pay for seeking to push such boundaries as overlay these things.
Hell is in the details, waiting patiently in the cracks and corners of existence, for the curious, naked eye to focus upon it. Barker's unique puzzle-box is the key that unlocks the untold horrors of Hell and the Cenobites are the keepers of the labyrinth that awaits beyond the threshold. When Kirsty finds herself faced by them and asks who they are, she is answered thusly, "Explorers... in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others."
Hellraiser is a labour of love and vindication for Barker, who had written screenplays before which were directed by others culminating in unsatisfactory results for the author. Perhaps this is part of the reason the film is so damned good. Yet it has it's shortcomings, as well.
Filled with a cast of unfamiliar faces, save for Andrew Robinson who played the father, Larry, Hellraiser follows in the footsteps of most horror movies. Still, while the acting isn't the greatest, it is better than most offerings of the genre. The early scenes involving the family are the weakest of the lot; the introductions of those characters, the arrival at the old, family home and the dinner. They seem to be barely-tolerated set pieces, standards which must be tossed into the mix, their existence endured for the tale to come into it's own.
Yet interwoven among them are scenes that carry you through and keep you interested until the hook is firmly set and there is no escape. Flashback sequences into the past showing Frank's searches for visceral experience, the purchase of the puzzle-box in Morocco, Julia's remembrance of her illicit affair with Frank as she stands in the attic room which culminates in orgasmic pleasure perfectly timed with Larry's hand being ripped open by the nail as he helps the movers with a mattress on the staircase... By the time the Cenobites take the stage to face the horrified and bewildered Kirsty there is no escape and no thought of it.
The film has one of the lowest body-counts of any horror I've seen and it's only apparent as an afterthought; Hellraiser rises above the plethora of slasher-flicks that the 80's were rife with and sets itself firmly apart and above them. The final result? A movie that is more an experience that just a few hours entertainment that will fade in memory; a journey taken at the behest of it's creator that will be indelibly imprinted upon the mind and never forgotten.