Written and Directed by: Clive Barker
Starring: Andrew Robinson as Larry Cotton
Clare Higgins as Julia Cotton
Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton
Doug Bradley as Lead Cenebite (aka Pinhead)
Tagline: It will tear your soul apart!
By: Shelley Stillo
Pre-screening memories: The thing I remember most about viewing Hellraiser as a pre-teen is precisely how much it didn’t effect me. I got started as a horror fan young. I was raised by a group of pop culture mavens who compared family members to characters from Poltergeist and Children of the Damned, who let me stay up late and watch Tales From the Darkside on overnight visits to their houses. By the time I was 10, I’d had the good sense to become best friends with the video-store lady’s daughter.
In those pre-blockbuster days, the horror shelf in the video store was a special place—a vast undiscovered country of illicit sights. Today, as most people order their dvds from Amazon based on movies they’ve already seen or heard of, or worse yet, they `flix everything they watch, DVD cover art is a pretty sanitized business. Actors you recognize, a scene from the film, the promo poster you’ve seen a thousand times. Mid-80s VHS cover art was different, especially in the horror aisle. Intense color and extreme graphics were the only ways to give your film a chance to be seen, especially in an era when many horror films were independently produced or released direct to video. VHS covers could be downright terrifying. A trip down the horror aisle at the video store could often be an act of bravery for my 10-year-old self, and, unfortunately, most often a much richer artistic experience than viewing the films inside those Technicolor cases.
But it was also an act of pure pleasure, as I anticipated my weekly visits to the horror aisle with an insane glee other children reserved for Disneyland. In the three or four years during which my best friend’s mother worked at the video store, my friend and I burned through every horror film on the shelf, each of our family’s taking weekly turns at playing host to our all-night bloodbath versions of the pre-teen girl sleepover.
Back then, Hellraiser was just another movie to add to the list of horror films I’d seen. Even though “Pinhead” was already an iconic figure in the genre by the time I’d encountered him, he left little to no impression on me. I liked that he was a cool-looking villain, but I didn’t know why he got so much attention in all of those horror documentaries I watched. And while this lack of effect was in part a consequence of my attraction to more kid-friendly horror—the comical Freddy films that spewed forth from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and PG-13 Stephen King adaptions chief among them—it wasn’t like I had no appreciation for more mature horror. I also counted Nosferatu and The Haunting among my favorite films. But Pinhead and his “magic box” never meant anything to me, besides the occasional ability to quicken my heart—and my step—when I saw their images on a VHS box.
New memories: I was recently able to view Hellraiser on the big screen, and my immediate reaction was “I’ve never really seen this movie before.” Even though Hellraiser has most likely made numerous appearances on my horror viewing lists (which haven’t stopped growing), I never really saw the movie until I watched it this year. This is obviously due to the fact that as a pre-teen horror fan, I had no capacity whatsoever to understand the erotic dynamics of a horror film that explicitly delves into the world of sado-masochistic pleasure (“Demons to some, angels to others” indeed). But because I’ve heard countless talking heads ruminate about Barker’s use of this subject matter over the years, I really thought I had a sense of this film—what it was about and how it worked—even though I hadn’t seen it for at least ten years. But I really had no idea, which can be a bit of a surreal experience, to realize that something you honestly believed to be familiar is actually an absolute unknown.
Obviously, as someone enthusiastic about rebel art (an enthusiasm that was only stoked by Barker’s own live introduction to the screening I saw, which included blow-job jokes and a raspy “Art should never be made for the man. Art should be made to take down the man.”), I was impressed by the frankness with which this film approached the topic of pain as pleasure. But the film seemed to go even further than that by criticizing, or at least portraying as equally horrific, the “normal” sexual couple. Kirstie’s father’s and boyfriend’s obliviousness to possibilities that don’t conform to their narrow view of the world seems as problematic as Uncle Frank and Stepmother Julia’s (if you can’t tell, there’s also a bit of an incest plot here, which only adds intensity to the atmosphere of the film) violent fantasies.
The other thing that keeps this film resonant and current is how well the special effects have held up. As a frequent attendee of midnight movies, I can definitely say that special effects rarely hold up. But despite the outrageouness of some of the imagery Barker tries to capture—the aforementioned skinless Frank and the “meat board” are two notable examples—you never laugh or flinch at an outdated technique watching this film. Perhaps it is actually because of Barker’s outrageousness that these visual moments hold up. The depths of imagination it takes to conjure such images guarantees that they’ll shock and disturb, even at more than 20 years old.
I can’t end this review without a word about the cenobites. They’re inventive villains, even to a 10-year-old who has no grasp of their meaning. In context (or, more accurately, when the context is understood), they’re the kind of characters that attach themselves to your psyche, and may never be completely shaken loose. The rich dialogue they’re given helps (quotes), but their visual characteristics truly are the stuff of nightmares. And as much as Pinhead is still a cool looking villain, it’s the sound of those chattering teeth that keeps me up at night today.
Is Shelly still interested in raising ‘Hell’ after all these years? Listen to the podcast, or dowload it here.